The French Ridge Track, on NZ's South Island, offers hikers a tough, near-vertical challenge. But it's well worth the effort.
MIKE TYSON AND I share something in common; we've both bitten off more than we can chew. The sound and intensity of my heart pounding frenetically against my rib cage mirrors that of the 16,000-strong Las Vegas crowd, cheering every bizarre moment of the 'Bite Fight'.
Perched 1200m up on a thin ridgeline in Mount Aspiring National Park, I'm facing my own behemoth: French Ridge Track. A seriously daunting, almost vertical walk - its slope proving a hand-over-hand scramble is the only way to summit - taking in buttressed trees, exposed rock steps and tree roots that look like they're on steroids all in our irregular stride. I've taken refuge below French Ridge Hut (1465m) beside one of the numerous ponds that scatter the climb; physically and emotionally drained, I'm taking in water like the Titanic on its maiden voyage.
Adam, a glacier guide from Franz Josef and a member of our outdoor triumvirate, spots the danger and sure enough with some exhortatory words - "Come on dude, you can rest when we get to the hut" - has me back on my feet and heading skyward for sanctuary. However I was starting to doubt my friend's incitement. With this being my first serious tramp, he had assured me that there would be nothing too great of a challenge.
As I lay on the ground with my hands behind my head and my lungs on the verge of collapse; between every strained muscular spasm, every hampered breath, I had learnt a hard truth - no matter how much or how hard you train in the flat-bedded nature of Australia, nothing can prepare you for the scale of New Zealand's backcountry.
Exploring one of New Zealand's best outdoor tracks
I have been more than a little interested in visiting New Zealand's South Island for the past few years now and what better way to satisfy my intrigue than by cutting my teeth on the French Ridge Track - immersing myself in the spellbinding beauty of the Matukituki Valley. This trip was also a good chance to spend a couple of weeks catching up with my friends Adam and Brian, and to escape the chaotic embrace of city living; an opportunity to "go bush". Whether you're looking for a serious multi-day challenge or more of a leisurely day walk, the Matukituki Valley is your one-stop shop, offering the outdoor enthusiast plenty of beauty with a little bite.
The first thing you'll notice is the isolation. It's a good one-hour dive from Wanaka - the last 33km of the journey transforms into a pothole-infused four-wheel-driver's playground and if, like us, you arrive in a less-than-gracious mode of transport, you may find your fillings bouncing around on the floor next to the Kiwi coins that have become dislodged from every nook and cranny. With an endless range of walks available, the only drama you'll face arriving at Raspberry Creek car park is choosing which walk suits you and whether you have enough battery life in your camera. The multi-day epic of Cascade Saddle to the Rees-Dart Track - with its spectacular view of Mt Aspiring or the French Ridge Track - overlooking Rob Roy Peak and Mt Avalanche offers a heart-pounding experience. If you're seeking a calmer day walk - something of a resting heart rate - then Rob Roy Track or the walk to Aspiring Hut is your ticket. One thing's for sure, whatever your angle, you'll walk away with a killer photograph for your portfolio.
The birds of the French Ridge Track
Back on the exposed ridgeline of the French Ridge Track, just above the beech forest where my body has come to an abrupt halt, a mangy flock of kea parrots have joined me for the final push to the hut. One particularly bold kea with an inquisitive disposition has come in for a closer look, his flight path hovering just above me; floating effortlessly with a mocking grin waiting for the opportune moment to strike. I know my body had seized up a few hundred metres below me, but my mind, too! It's times like these I wish I had carried the autobiography of British adventurer Sir Ranulph Fiennes to draw on for inspiration or as protection to fend off these bloodthirsty beasts. Like an alcoholic confronted with the bottom of the whisky bottle, the fear was all too real. With the anxiety of an aerial attack imminent, miraculously my pace had quickened, spurred on by a timely boost of adrenalin.
Man! Where was that kicker four hours ago and 1000m earlier? For the first time since Pearl Flat I was able to relax and take in my surroundings. Oh boy! What surroundings they were. Mt Avalanche and Rob Roy Peak at sunset blew my mind - I was in photographer's heaven and my camera on the verge of critical malfunction, unable to keep up with the intended actuations. The last of the light folded perfectly over the ice-covered peaks, turning the snow into a golden hue - my eyes fixed upon their glistening summits.
French Ridge Track's less glamourous side
Reaching the hut Adam and I receive a peloton's welcome. Having run ahead like a scalded cat, Brian is standing on the balcony with Robin, our German Department of Conservation hut warden, cheering us on with cowbells and streamers. It probably sounded more like a dull clap to Adam, but for this rookie it is like a hero's homecoming. Before I can put my pack down, Robin grabs the three of us and proceeds to explain that the toilet, which stands on a small plateau about 50m from the hut is in need of a barrel change - no potty change would result in a freezing, undignified squat for us in the dark with the rampaging keas!
Undaunted by the toxic stench and completely afraid of the giant alpine parrots, we set about changing over the massive crap-filled barrel - all 150L of it. Of course, it doesn't move with any real conviction. Brian and I grapple one side of the tube's giant girth while Adam decides to wedge himself between the two barrels and use his legs as a crude method to dislodge the heap of shit. Our limp triumvirate heaves with the sort of power that forged the planets.
With a momentous shift the barrel moves with surprising ease and, as if in slow motion, a large slop of human faeces proceeds to gain speed, locking itself onto its intended target: Adam. Sure enough, gravity doing what gravity does best; the slop hits Adam square on the shoulder and down his right arm. I think I'd rather take my chances with the keas.
Matukituku Valley musings
A month later, set among the madness of Sydney peak hour, I'm back in a taxi. I zone out, my mind a timeline back to those three days in the Matukituki Valley. The open grasslands broken by the snaking vein of the Matukituki River west branch, the beech-lined ridges, the endless blue skies shattered by the contrast of the white peaks of Rob Roy, Mt Avalanche and the behemoth, Mt Aspiring. That monumental effort to French Ridge Hut, the clear, blue ponds that saved my life and the kea that almost took it. The pure unpolluted warmth of the sunset, even the unfortunate incident with the crap barrel. All those challenging, hilarious and yet unforgettable moments a perfect antidote to the taxi driver chewing my ear off.
Getting there: There're endless options of trans-Tasman flights from the major carriers - Qantas, Virgin Australia and Air New Zealand all fly daily to Christchurch and Queenstown from most Australian hubs. Once in Christchurch you can get a connecting flight to Wanaka airport, which runs twice daily, four times a week. Driving to Wanaka from Christchurch takes six hours or 1.5 hours from Queenstown.
Where to stay: While in Wanaka, there's a range of places to stay, from high end B&Bs, luxury lodges and hotels to some cool little backpackers. In the Matukituki Valley an amazing string of serviced and un-serviced DOC (Department of Conservation) huts are available from NZ$20 (A$15.30) off-peak to NZ$25 (A$19.10) peak. Fees are to be paid at the Wanaka visitor centre or the Mt Aspiring National Park visitor centre.
When to go: December-May is recommended for the Matukituki Valley. June-November can be prone to avalanches on several tracks. The Matukituki Valley isn't closed during winter, but an experienced leader or guide is recommended.
Essential gear: Bring a sleeping bag, warm clothes, a cooker and utensils.
More info: www.doc.govt.nz; www.lakewanaka.co.nz/new-zealand