PLAN A IS to hook up with Kiwi photographer and mate Derek Morrison for some fun around NZ’s outdoor mecca, Queenstown. However, on day three of a brutal frontal system, we are still sipping coffee in a cafe, watching our adventure slip away.
We munch on another chocolate brownie in the laneway cafe and stare at Derek’s iPhone. Finally, the weather update we have been hoping for – a perfectly positioned high is coming – it promises a two-day window of relatively clear weather.
“Time for plan B?” I ask. “Yep, let’s get out there,” Derek says. A second round of coffee is ordered, we blanket the timber table with maps and our fingers begin tracking lines and options.
This is our plan: in six hours’ time, we aim to be in Macintosh Hut on the lower slopes of Black Peak as the cold front disperses the last of its fury. The weather window begins tomorrow, according to the forecasters. And we will be ready to enjoy it.
The front’s final fury
We drive out under heavy skies, leaving the trendy cafe scene behind in search of a trail that Willey from R & R Sports said was “a good couple of days out” and “would nicely combine mountain biking and hiking”.
We ride onto the trail head, perched on the shores of Lake Wakatipu and just a few kays from the township of Glenorchy. The trail crosses a couple of paddocks, then rises sharply from the lower valleys, affording views across the lake toward the Greenstone River on the opposite shoreline. Rain skirts the higher reaches, topping up already swollen creeks that crisscross the rock-strewn trail.
The Southern Alps make a fantastic backdrop for the lads as they climb up to the hut.
We endure the lingering front’s remaining energy, but figure at least we are battling the weather on the lower reaches and will be in the hut by nightfall, ready for our window.
We take a break beside the remnants of an old mine. The Mount Judah mine began extracting scheelite in 1884. In tough and often lonely conditions, miners would use their hands to dig scheelite-containing quartz from seams in tunnels carved deep into the mountains. When the European markets of the day crashed, miners deserted, leaving the infrastructure intact. Derek and I explore a mineshaft complete with railway tracks and equipment.
We breathe heavily as the trail leads onto a ridge line overlooking the turquoise water of the fast-flowing Wallers Creek. Quickly the trail descends to the icy waters, a cold crossing ensues, then we follow the winding path up the opposing valley wall at a steep gradient, requiring us to push our laden bikes.
The steep, heath-covered terrain is tough work, but gives way to a set of inviting switchbacks that hastily increase our altitude and bring us face-to-face with ominous clouds. The sun’s rays burst through in a defiant attempt to split the swirling darkness, but the interlude is brief.
After a big slog upwards, the trail finally spits us onto Long Gully Saddle. Howling, ice-cold winds buffet us as we stare into the next layer of mountains – Pulpit Basin, Temple Peak and Black Peak stand before us like a giant amphitheatre.
Clouds swirl about the jagged, snow-covered peaks, driving rain begins to splinter our outer shells. “Better push on, mate, don’t want to get caught out here in the dark,” says Derek, pointing towards a black-rimmed cloud bank.
Strong gusts make riding the thin, rocky trail impossible and we resign ourselves to pushing up the steep ridge line. The forecast advised “85km/h winds with gusts to 100kmhh at 1000m”, but as we reach 1200m the final fury of the front is approaching a little too fast. “Where is the hut?” I ponder anxiously.
Darkness descends quickly as the ramshackle Macintosh Hut looms into sight – our relief is palpable. The Department of Conservation (DOC) has only recently acquired the old miners’ and drovers’ hut. Two keas screech and scream to welcome us, before swiftly darting down the ridge line and out of sight.
The hut creaks and groans as the wind rattles its foundations. Corn snow and sleet fall outside; inside we sit in our sleeping bags, enjoying BackCountry Cuisine apple pie. The hut logbook shows no more then a few pages of entries since 2007, no one has signed in for six weeks prior to our arrival.
A silence fills the void in my mind as I emerge from an exhaustion-induced slumber. Sunlight streams through the stained hut windows. The forecasters got it right to the hour. We have woken to a mountain paradise. Plan B is on track.
We dry wet gear in the sunshine and pack essential items into daypacks. The bikes will be left in the hut, the next two days will be on foot.
After the monotone textures of our stormy arrival, the morning vista presents a striking layer of hues. A new mountain mood has descended – my senses are filled with browns, greens, oranges, reds and the glistening turquoise of the lake below.
Dallas looks up, and up, as he continues scrambling to the top of the peak.
A patchwork of green stretches below us: dark green pines stand in rows like toy soldiers. Rising up the steep slopes on the far side of the lake are the deep-green remnants of native beech forests stretching to the distinctive point where the tree line ends and the browns and greys of rock begin. Blindingly bright smatterings of snow are perched in pockets. Still further my eyes rise, to the jagged ridge line that borders the scene, then up to the bright blue expanse of mountain sky. I love how my mind wanders in the mountains.
“Coffee, bro?” Derek calls from the hut porch, breaking my meditative moment. “Yeah mate, love one.”
With daypacks loaded, we stride out towards Mount Macintosh. The trail to Black Peak snakes up the fields of heath, but we are looking for “the scenic route”, as Derek puts it. So with map in hand we plot a course towards the ridge line that skirts Mt Macintosh.
The trek is challenging and fun; we skirt rocky outcrops and every few hundred metres debate which route is the best option.
The wide, scree-covered slopes of Black Peak are above us, giving us a clear view of the general lay and potential routes. Intermittent pockets of snow become more frequent as we ascend the rock-covered slopes. Stunning views of the shining lake below transfix us over lunch. We locate a couple of potential camp spots, making a mental note of the position of each in case we need to retreat. With the high now right above us, the plan is to camp as close to the summit as we can.
A cascading river – transporting icy water, silt, minerals and rocks – winds its way from below the impressive massive of Temple Peak across the steep valley. Above us is a snow-covered mass of rock, shining like a huge beacon in the sunlight, beckoning us to its summit.
A reasonably wide ledge is deemed the most suitable camp before the slopes turn into a mass of loose, unstable rock. Derek takes great pleasure in describing how many hundreds of small earth tremors occur daily in these mountains and how common rock slips are. I work hard to locate a spot I feel holds the least risk. We lighten our loads again, dropping tent and sleeping bags, before making the final trek to the summit.
The final climb is reasonably easy, a “super fun scramble”, Derek says. We carefully pick our way through each section, moving lightly and consciously. The weather is amazing – we’re in shorts and shirts on the summit. Stunning views stretch 360 degrees, the big peaks of the Southern Alps stand in a striking formation beyond the further ridges.
The sun begins its slow journey toward to the distant peaks as we arrive back at camp. A spectacular sunset and drawn-out twilight ensue as we sit in what feels like the best seat on earth at that moment. As soon as nightfall chases away the twilight, the cold takes hold; it suddenly does feel like we are perched on the side of a mountain. Not a breath of wind is evident – the silence is as immense as the star-filled sky.
Top to bottom
We rise early to another stunning day and are treated to a sunrise that makes the hairs on the back of my neck stand tall. Nature never ceases to amaze and inspire me. It really does force one to enjoy the simplicity of the moment.
We have decided to make a top-to-bottom assault today. So we climb to the summit again, then begin the descent to the lake. Clouds skirt the ridges; the window of calmness is due to break today. Already we can sense nature’s changing mood.
Picking a fresh route down the mountain adds to the adventure. We rock-hop and bound between steep slips, wide grins on our faces – like a couple of 10-year-olds on a mission. Derek spots a tahr silhouetted on the ridge line.
Derek finds an old scheelite miners’ route as we approach the hut and follows it until he is stopped by a massive slip. I take the lower slope option after turning my ankle in the excitement of the quick descent. We can see the hut below and have each other in view so feel comfortable to enjoy an hour or so of going our own ways. I meet Derek at the trail crossing, he takes a seat on the soft heath before recounting a moment of terror.
“Mate, I was picking my way across the slip and knocked out a couple of wheelbarrow-sized rocks, my heart was racing, rocks started tumbling, the slope began to groan and rumble, I was thinking, ‘Dude, you’ve taken one extra route too many’ when it halted and silence returned. I hugged the most stable rock I could find,” he says, miming a hug. “I sat for a moment hugging this rock, mate. That was one wild ride.”
The ride from the hut begins in sketchy fashion – a rocky, slippery, loose, steep-sided descent dropping us back onto Long Gully Saddle. Here we plan to traverse the opposite valley wall to the one we ascended, so creating a loop. The trail leads us up steep switchbacks onto a thin ridge line from where we can see Mount Judah and down to the impressive Buckler Burn.
The trail approaches a fence line where we spot a DOC sign advising us to follow the orange markers. The markers are not easy to see as the track is completely overgrown. Turns out this is a new DOC route skirting private farmland, so the track has barely been used, even by walkers. Spear grass is everywhere on the overgrown section, no trail is evident as we push through clumps of earth and vegetation.
We consult the map. Derek is convinced that just below the ridge is a heavenly piece of trail he spotted on the way up. “It’ll be the ultimate finish, push on,” he calls.
By now we are stumbling down, throwing our bikes over waist-high clumps of wiry foliage and being stabbed by spear grass all the way. At one point I lose control of my bike and stare in horror as it cartwheels away, coming to rest on a clump of spear grass 20m below. At this point I spit the dummy and begin bashing my way back up to the fence line. A disgruntled Derek follows, but I sense he appreciates this route is fast becoming fruitless and increasingly risky.
We search for the remnants of a trail; Derek spots a quad bike trail over the fence. The exhilarating downhill Derek has been promising comes to fruition as we descend under increasingly heavy skies to the paddocks below. Nervous sheep scatter as we jump fences before reaching the gravel road that leads to the lake edge. More than 1000m of vertical descent – yeah!
We roll down the gravel-packed surface, laughing at each other’s pincushion-like flesh after our spear grass experience. Then rain begins to fall. Looking back up the valley to the upper reaches, a rainbow appears among shafts of sunlight dancing a final show. The weather window has closed – perfect timing.
Warm and dry
Derek drops a couple of Speight’s on the table as we sit gazing out the window at the river of humanity on a rain-soaked Queenstown street. Sometimes it’s not about an extreme challenge, but the simple pleasure of a quick recharge. Our original trip plan was more days out, yet just the few days we managed have made an impression on me. Nature in all its moods allowed us a glimpse of its finest offerings – a stunning mountain sunset, a star-filled sky and top back country vistas.
Queenstown has myriad short trip options like this. No major planning, no hardcore equipment required – a taste of the mountains awaits if you seize the opportunity.
Getting there: Air New Zealand flies direct from Sydney, Melbourne and Brisbane to Queenstown, www.airnewzealand.com.au
Where to stay: To find DOC campsites, cabins and lodges, go to www.doc.govt.nz
More info: Destination Queenstown, the official website, is at www.queenstown-nz.co.nz