“Is that a mirage? Seriously, is that a mirage or is that the hut? I’ve been hearing voices up on the hills for 20 minutes and I don’t know if that is real.”
“Peabody, I think that is the hut. Good Lord we are finally there.”
“I might start crying, but I wouldn’t be able to tell if it was from the pain or from overwhelming joy that we are finally here at this tin-can hut.”
We are finally in New Zealand and we are loving [almost] every second of it. We flew into Christchurch 5 days ago, which was actually on the 1 year anniversary of the enormous earthquake, and found our campsite at 10pm in the rain. We pitched our tent and finally took some deep breaths with the realization that we were finally here. Now, we don’t want to hate on any particular location, because we have been having an absolutely glorious time, but we have been anxiously waiting New Zealand. We loved the beaches and party life of Australia, but the mountains of NZ have been calling for quite some time. So when we finally got into our rain soaked tent, we were ‘happy campers.’
The next day we picked up our rental car [the El Cheapo version] and dubbed her ‘Cindy’ within a few hours. She is a real piece of work. She has so much exterior damage that the rental agent told me “dude, you can literally do what ever you want to this car because its going to the shop as soon as you bring it back” – we will be testing the limits of that theory. Once in the car, we realized that it would be a bit more difficult to drive on the opposite side of the road than we expected. After going around some roundabouts more than once, we were on our way to Arthur’s Pass National Park, which sits right in the middle of the mountain range that splits the south island of NZ into east and west. Finally on the open road, we cranked up the classic rock and pointed to the looming mountains in front of us and stated “we want to go to the top of those.” We would get our wish.
For the next two nights we camped next to this wonderful mountain lake and explored a bit more of the park. After talking to the rangers, we decided that a 2 day hike would be in order. We got the name of the pass, a crappy map, instructions of where to leave Cindy, and headed out. [As a side note – Jack had sent his parents a loose itinerary of what we were
going to do. If we didn’t make contact by Monday morning at 11am, they were given the proper instructions to “call in the cavalry” to save us]
The next morning we had parked Cindy, left all valuables behind with a prayer that she didn’t get robbed, and started back down to the road. The particular route that we were taking was a loop that started 10km around the bend in the highway, which would lead us back to our car in 2 days time. We get down to the road at 10am on a sunny, crisp morning, plop our bags down, and stick out our thumbs. We were hitch-hiking. Being the first hitch-hiking experience for both of us, the first car passing without even slowing down was a bit demoralizing – the 20th car was a bit easier to understand. After realizing that picking up 2 backpacking men isn’t the most desirable thing in the world, we decided that we would change up our hitch-hiking tactics. Ryan would give the standard thumb in air with a big smile, while Jack would dance around throwing his thumbs out like a disco dancer. 5 minutes of this and a camper van flashed its lights at us and slowed down. It was John and Ann from rural England, our hitch-hiking saviors. They were an elderly couple who are both avid hitch-hikers as well and thought our little dance was funny enough to pick us up. They were a hoot to chat with for 20 minutes around the bend. We arrive at the trailhead, say our goodbyes and begin what we think is going to be an easy hike. We were wrong.
Within an hour, we were crossing rivers and hiking up a massive dry riverbed. Our feet were wet and we hadn’t even had lunch yet. We finally make it onto a proper trail and start climbing upwards at an alarmingly steep rate. The feet already are starting to hurt as they slosh around in our boots. We finally make it up to the saddle and feel like kings. The view is breathtaking and we are halfway to our desired destination for the night. We are making moderately good time.
We finally arrive at the hut, Hamilton hut, for the night and are happy to find the hut well equipped with a fireplace and bunks with mattresses [because of a lack of backpack space, neither of us brought our sleeping pads, which means that while camping we are sleeping straight on the ground]. We sit by the fire, eat our sausage, cheese, and ramen, and observe our first remote starry sky. After finding the southern cross and other configurations only seen in the southern hemisphere, it does not take long for us to get to sleep.
The next morning is an early one because we know that we have a big day in front of us. We are going to make it out of the wilderness by sundown so that Jack’s dad doesn’t call in the rangers. The trek starts out easy, but soon we find ourselves having trouble finding the trail markers. We are working our way down this river valley, going through marshes and muck to avoid getting our boots wet again. We finally have no choice but to cross the river, but are still managing to find orange trail markers every 30 minutes or so. Eventually we find a 4×4 track and we follow it for about an hour, when we come across what looks like a caravan of off-road vehicles. We are so remote, and they are so suprised to see us, that they offer us a ride and we tell them that we are looking for the West Hampton Hut. The driver tells us that he was an ranger back in the 80’s and that the hut is just across that river delta far in the distance. We are already starting to get tired, but we say thanks for the ride and make our way towards the speck in the distance. We cross the river 6 or 7 more times and finally get to the building that we once thought was the hut. It is not the West Hampton Hut. Thank God the family that lived in the home was leaving in their car when we arrived because we were able to get directions from them. This is how the conversation went:
Us – “Hi, sorry to bother you, but we seem to be a bit lost. Is this the West Hampton Hut?”
Them – [Puzzled looks soon turn to pity then to fear] “Umm no. That hut is up that river.” [Points to river valley which we just walked down]
Us – “Wait, that can’t be right. We just walked down that.”
Them – “Boys, you are going to need a new map. Here [hands us massive map with current location because we were so far off of ours]. Do you boys have enough food? [genuine worried look spreads across all family members’ faces]
Us – “Well, our day just got a whole lot worse. Thanks for the map and no, we have enough food. We have been hiking long enough to know to expect the unexpected…. Shit”
That is when we sat down, ate half a peanut butter sandwich and contemplated our next move. We had walked 4 hours down a river valley in the complete opposite direction of the way out of the woods. We had one more day of food left, but that was cutting it close. Our boots were soaking. If we did not make it out by 11am on Monday morning, Jack’s dad was going to call the rangers and we would look like real idiots. In those peanut butter sandwich moments, we were going into “rage mode” – we had close to 8 hours of grueling hiking left.
So the hike back begun and we made our way through the river valley with little to no regard for personal safety. We pushed through head-tall, grassy marshes with snakes and large spiders everywhere. We were stalked by cattle ranchers and the cattle (we had hiked onto private property at some point). We crossed rivers at any point because our feet were so soaked, it didn’t matter any longer. Finally 3 hours later, we made it back to the point where the day began. Within 5 minutes of the hike from the hut in the early morning, we had missed the turn. We were beyond frustrated.
So we had been hiking 7 hours (4 hours down the river valley and a very brisk, determined 3 hours back up the same way) and we were starting the track that we were planning to be a big day from the very beginning. We rung out our socks, ate another half of a peanut butter sandwich, and kept on moving – our next stop was West Hampton Hut, the hut we were looking for the entire time, 2 or 3 hours away according to the maps and signs – we made it in 73 minutes.
After checking out the hut for 5 minutes, we decided that it just wasn’t going to do. We were going up the mountain – we were going to make it to the Lagoon Saddle Shelter. [If you know mountain hiking, you know that anything with the word ‘saddle’ means that it sits between 2 peaks, which means that it is extremely high up in the mountains] We had 2 hours and 55 minutes until the sun went down and we had at least 3 hours of approximate hiking uphill.
Over the next 2 hours and 58 minutes, we absolutely abused our bodies. There is really no way to put into words what we experienced going up that mountain, but for the sake of the readers, we will try. We were in wet boots (our feet were so wrinkled that we could feel the pads of our feet would move independently from the rest of the foot), we were running on a modest amount of food, we had been hiking for close to 9 hours, and the trail was up and down on uneven roots, vines and rocks. We were in hell.
There wasn’t much said between us during that last part of the trail. We had a goal and we were going to reach it. The time for hiking songs and stories had passed and it was just time to dig down deep. One foot in front of the other. Right then left then right again. Watch out for that rock. Don’t slip crossing that stream. Watch the shin deep mud on your left. Keep your eyes on the dipping sun to keep the pace before nightfall. Drink water…. As Jack said “I would have cried before I stopped moving my feet.” Both of us are athletic guys, but this was the most physically demanding thing we had ever done.
Finally Ryan’s timer beeped on his watch, which let us know that it was officially sundown. The temperature was dropping fast, still deep in the woods, still going uphill, and still not at the Lagoon Saddle Shelter – we had to keep moving. Not two minutes after Ryan’s timer went off, Jack says:
JG – “Is that a mirage? Seriously, is that a mirage or is that the hut? I’ve been hearing voices up on the hills for 20 minutes and I don’t know if that is real.”
RD – “Peabody, I think that is the hut. Good Lord we are finally there.”
JG – “I might start crying, but I wouldn’t be able to tell if it was from the pain or from overwhelming joy that we are finally here at this tin-can hut.”
We made it – 2 minutes after sundown, 11 hours and 33 minutes and 48 seconds of actual moving, hiking time – we were safe for the night. In the next 30 minutes, we boiled water, split a packet of ramen, drank some powdered soup, and passed out on the hardwood floor. We didn’t care that we didn’t have sleeping pads, we didn’t care that we were physically ruined, we didn’t care that we could see our breath inside the hut from the encroaching cold – all that mattered was that we were in the Lagoon Saddle Shelter.
The next morning was absolutely brutal, our bodies in absolute revolt from the day before, but we trudged on at 7am. We needed to be up and over the mountain by 11am so the rangers weren’t called. 3 hours later, we were walking down into the car park to our beautiful Cindy, after being rewarded with a wonderful sunrise on top of the
mountains overlooking the entire valley below.
We had hiked to hell and back, covering 20+ miles in one day in wet boots, but we were alive, the rangers weren’t called, our car didn’t get robbed, and we had a bag of Doritos waiting for us. Life was good.
Current Location: Arthur’s Pass National Park, New Zealand