Travels in New Zealand
by Steve Bragg
The Boeing 747 slipped and shuddered, pulling me out of a restless slumber. After an eight-hour flight from Honolulu, Continental Flight #2 was descending towards Auckland, the largest city in New Zealand. The jet dived through a cloud bank, and suddenly the green-swathed hills of the northern tip of the country appeared below, surrounded by innumerable sailboats anchored in the green waters of the Tasman Sea. A flight attendant appeared with a hot towel to wipe away the effects of 15 hours of flying; because of the six hour time difference between Auckland and Denver, I'd been robbed of a night's sleep and would have to stay awake another twelve hours before the sun set - it was just 8 a.m.
The first New Zealander I encountered was, predictably, a customs official, who was dressed like an English policeman, with a tall black helmet. Next to me in line was a towering Maori. Maoris are moderately dark skinned, powerfully-built people with Polynesian features who landed in New Zealand about 1,000 years ago. They make up 10% of the population, and are concentrated in the North Island. The unique blend of rigidly British ways, such as the customs uniforms, and the South Pacific people and environment, such as the Maoris, was already in evidence.
I staggered outside under a load of duffel bags to a rental car. New Zealanders drive on the left side of the road, so the driver's seat was on the right. This arrangement took some getting used to, because the stick shift was NOT reversed; the lowest gears were the furthest away from the driver. In addition, the turn signal was on the right side of the steering column, which invariably caused me to turn on the windshield wipers at intersections instead of a blinker. Finally, I could not figure out how to change stations on the radio. Three days later, I discovered that the obvious combination of the tape deck fast forward button and the "seek" button would do the job.
I pulled out and soon encountered the confusion of a two-lane traffic rotary. The British love these things, and have spread the concept to every English-speaking country except the United States. Rotaries nearly eliminate the need for traffic lights, but don't seem to work well for heavy volumes of traffic. I negotiated it with only one stall and two counts of manslaughter, got onto Highway One, accelerated to the national speed limit of 100 kilometers per hours (62 mph) and drove south. Highway One is exceptional in that it's a divided highway for a short distance near Auckland. It is the only divided highway in the country, which means that proficiency in passing is mandatory.
The amount of traffic was startlingly large for a country billed as an outdoorsman's paradise. The problem became worse when the road shrank to two lanes, and traffic bottled up behind low-speed vehicles. Since the traffic was so slow, I had lots of time to examine traffic signs. Some of the more unusual ones were SLIPPERY WHEN FROSTY (translation: "Hold Your Beer Tightly"), FREE PASS (translation: "Go to Park Avenue, Collect $200") and JUDDER BARS. I cruised past this last sign at fifty miles per hour, pondering its significance, when I suddenly realized that it meant SPEED BUMPS.
Besides fiddling with the radio and reading traffic signs, the only thing left to do while driving was to watch the countryside. As a whole, one third of the land is pasture, a third is agricultural, and the remainder is mountainous. This particular area was composed of small, rolling hills, totally stripped of all vegetation save grass, and covered by cattle and sheep. New Zealand has 65% of the world's lamb market; sheep outnumber people by fifteen to one (lucky they can't vote). Hedgerows and picket fences divided the landscape into neat squares. Except for a number of palm trees, the view was straight out of the south of England. Bee hives were everywhere; the most famous New Zealander, Sir Edmund Hillary, started as a bee keeper and went on to climb Mount Everest.
One anomaly was the lack of variation in the color of farm buildings. Everything was painted red. The obvious explanation was that Sherwin-Williams had made an enormous bulk sale of red paint to the entire country.
Stopping for food was an adventure. I had to cross the street to reach the store. The typical American looks left and then right for traffic before crossing. I did so, and leapt back to avoid road pizza status as a truck, horn blaring, thundered past. Also, there are no supermarkets in New Zealand. Small to mid-sized stores are the norm, since towns are too small to support full-sized establishments. This means that the selection of food is limited. To supplement their incomes, some stores advertised Instant Kiwi, which is the national New Zealand lottery.
I finally got off Highway One and drove west toward the coast. This was a considerable improvement. Traffic dropped to almost nothing as long as the road being traveled was not a national highway. The road passed grazing land and mounted a low range of hills, where it clung to a narrow ridge, surrounded by dense jungle that fell away sharply into ravines.
After a few pleasant hours of driving through the rain forest, I reached the coast and headed south towards Mount Egmont, the primary climbing goal of the trip. The place names on the way down the coast (and all over the North Island) were a disconcerting mix of English and Maori. For example, Mount Egmont is the English name for a peak that is also called Taranaki. Most Maori names are extremely long and very forgettable, being composed of a series of nearly identical syllables. The South Island had far fewer Maori place names than the North Island.
I first noticed Mount Egmont while driving down the west coast highway. A line of chalk cliffs, as large as the white cliffs of Dover, followed the coastline, while rising from the sea beyond them was a massive volcano. The peak is a splendid cone thrusting up 8,260 feet from a peninsula that juts out into the Tasman Sea. It was named after Captain Cook's boss, the Earl of Egmont. Because of its proximity to the sea, rainfall is 300 inches per year. The lower flanks of the mountain are covered by rainforest. It has been climbed regularly since the mid-1800s, and became a national park in 1900.
I continued driving down the beautiful coastline past the emerald green of the Tasman Sea, and then headed inland to Stratford to spend the night. Waking up in the morning to an overcast sky, I threw the soakingtent into the trunk (heavy dew was to be expected every night) and drove up the Pembroke Road to a parking area at 3,750 feet known as the Plateau. This was the base of a ski area, though the lodge was located a half hour's walk up a nearby trail. From the ski lodge, I hiked up between the chair lift pylons through high humidity to the top of the ski field, at which point the trail disappeared, leaving me at the foot of a long, sandy slope that terminated in the rocks of a false summit, still well above me. A ring of encircling clouds appeared to be moving closer to the peak.
I made the mistake of a direct ascent up the sand slope instead of finding a way around. Instead, with sweat dripping in a steady stream from my nose and landing unerringly on my boots, I struggled up what was essentially a massive sand dune, lunging for the comparatively solid footing of small rocks or sliding back down through a thick layer of silty pumice. After an agonizingly long time (probably five minutes), I noticed a line of hikers ascending to my right through a band of rock that stretched all the way from the ski field to the summit. Muttering imprecations, I traversed over to the rock band.
The hikers were from the nearby city of New Plymouth. The group leader had already climbed the peak three times that week! After learning that I'd only landed in Auckland the day before and was already climbing Egmont, they announced that I was "doin' alright," which is the highest accolade given by a New Zealander.
The footing was much easier through the rocks, so I quickly left behind the other hikers and overhauled a fast German climber. We reached the rocks below the false summit and tracked around to the right, looking for a way to reach the true summit. I tried leading straight up at one point and soon reached a nearly vertical stretch that appeared impenetrable without the protection of a rope. Since this was supposed to be a non-intense vacation, I backed off and followed the German further to the right. We found a gully leading to a rock chimney that had a cable bolted into it to assist in climbing.
I descended the water-slickened chimney into a small crater, which was filled with a permanent layer of snow. After a one-minute walk across the glacier, the route split into a dozen sandy tracks leading up to a scree covered mound that was the summit. The hike had taken two hours and forty minutes from the Plateau.
This ascent may appear simple; however, during its 140 years of climbing history, there have been 30 recorded deaths. The main danger is the thick mist that can form in minutes, producing extreme whiteout conditions and chilling temperatures. Also, the area is subject to earthquakes. A quake registering 4.2 on the Richter scale hit Egmont two weeks after I climbed it, while a 6.1-level quake had hit the island a week before I arrived.
The summit was occupied by a dozen climbers, several of whom had camped on it the night before. One person had climbed it sixteen times. A mountain hut was visible on one shoulder of the mountain; there are thirteen huts located on various parts of the peak, interconnected by 200 miles of trails. Nearly 100 miles to the east, two volcanoes rose above what was now a thick layer of clouds covering the landscape; these were Mounts Ruapehu and Ngauruhoe, located in Tongariro National Park.
The people on the route agreed that I should descend via an easier route (the climb by the chair lift being considered the most difficult route on the mountain) a quarter of the way around the peak, and take a track at the base that led completely around the peak, and which would take me back to the Plateau. I jogged down this sandy path, passing an extraordinary number of climbers, and soon was enveloped in mist. The clouds surrounding the peak had finally closed in, blanketing the lower half of the mountain. The temperature plummeted, and a chill breeze eddied about. The path was suddenly replaced by a long wooden staircase. Apparently the sandy ascent was considered too difficult, so these steps were built to ease the burden on climbers. After several thousand steps, I reached the round-the-peak track, and jogged along that for an hour to reach the Plateau.
Mounts Ruapehu and Ngauruhoe had looked like good climbs as seen from the top of Egmont, so I elected to drive over there and see if they were climbable. Having always eschewed travel on main roads, I soon found a side road that turned into a dirt road, narrowing by the mile. This road took me far away from the sea coast, into a steep-sided valley overhung with jungle growth. A sluggish brown river moved turgidly at its bottom. A series of tiny villages appeared, named optimistically after such Greek and Roman cities as Athens and Rome. An unusual item seen in most villages is the prominence of the graveyard; New Zealanders do not hide away their burial plots; rather, they site cemeteries on the main street. Many homes have private burial plots in the back yard.
I pulled over constantly to admire the scenery. As soon as the noise from the car's engine stopped, a multitude of jungle sounds closed in - the cawing of parrots and buzzing of insects. Incidentally, there are no snakes in New Zealand, nor are there any poisonous insects.
After eighty miles of dirt road, I burst back out onto a national highway, not far from Tongariro National Park. The park is named after the least of three volcanoes that are clumped together near the center of the North Island. Mount Tongariro blew apart long ago, leaving a long string of rubble, somewhat reminiscent of a garbage dump, though its ridge line contains several small lakes. Next to it is the magnificent Mount Ngauruhoe, sporting a perfect cone. Across an open plain from these two peaks sits the highest peak in the North Island, Mount Ruapehu. Actually, only the lower half of Ruapehu is left; the top blew off long ago. At the base of Ruapehu sits Whakapapa Village, which has one of the finest motor camps in the country. I drove up the access road to the motor camp, passing Chateau Tongariro, a hotel constructed to look like a French chateau.
After setting up the tent on a bed of cedar shavings, I locked up the car and walked around the village. Upon returning, I realized that the keys were locked in the car along with all of my food! Not being in the mood for starving all night, I walked over to the Chateau to borrow a coat hanger, and tried to open the door lock by sliding the coat hanger down the side of the window and catching it on the lock mechanism. It didn't work.
After a half hour of effort and no results, I spotted a couple out for their evening walk and invited them over for a try. They were Australians who were biking through the country. The husband hunched over the car door with the coat hanger and some bike tools while his wife hovered over his shoulder and criticized his performance. I kept calling over people as they passed by, hoping to land a practiced car thief. I ended up with three Swiss couples and a German couple clustered around the car. It had the makings of a really good party, but we still couldn't get into the car. Finally all six of the Swiss invited me over to the motor camp's kitchen, where they donated a remarkable amount of food; they cooked it, and even cleaned up afterward. I decided to lock myself out of the car more often.
The next morning, a mechanic from the local garage tried to open the car, but only damaged two of the door locks instead. Getting desperate, I called Avis. They sent out a driver with a spare key, but delivered it to the wrong motor camp -- thirty miles away. After a second round of phone calls in the afternoon, another driver appeared with the correct key. Saved at last! Since there were only two days before my ferry left for the South Island, there was no time to climb anything in the park; I drove south towards Wellington, where the ferry terminal was located.
My route went down the east side of the park. This area varied radically from the landscape anywhere else in the North Island; it was a desert. Deserts are great country for maneuvering tanks. Thus, it was not a surprise to see an armored personnel carrier going through a farm gate near the park. Further south, an enterprising township with a fine sense of humor had erected a sign that had the exact configuration of a road sign, except that it read, "CAUTION: Low-Flying Tearooms".
Since the shadows were lengthening, I decided to look for a motor camp at which to spend the night. Trolling through the town of Bull, looking for camping signs, I came upon a burning Shell station. A group of firefighters stood nearby sipping tea. I presumed that they were waiting for a compatriot to return with marshmallows before starting more vigorous work.
Eighty miles north of Wellington lies the Otaki Gorge. There was no reference to it in the guide book, and even the road map seemed uncertain about the existence of a road leading into it. The topography looked interesting, so I turned off the highway and headed down a dirt road that pointed in the right direction. The road narrowed considerably and was washed out once, but the scenery was improving by the mile, so I kept going. Finally, the road was blocked by a road grading machine (desperately needed); after inching past it, the road really worsened, and finally ended at a turn-around. Spiny mountain ridges, thickly covered with vegetation, rose up on all sides. Tendrils of fog wound amongst the branches and brambles.
There were eight tracks leading off the road. Wanting to get a flavor for tropical conditions, I grabbed some equipment from the car and hiked along the Penn Track for a few miles. After dodging sheep in a pasture, I climbed a stone fence wreathed with moss and entered the jungle. Jungle hiking has one constant - it is always wet. Water drips from the trees. Water lies in stagnant pools along the trail. Water is mixed into potent quagmires that require Tarzan-like skills to cross. Water causes mud slides. Lots of mud slides. After picking across a half dozen such slides, I turned around and headed back to the car.
Wellington is New Zealand's capital city, with a population of 350,000. My first sight of it was across a vast harbor; a red tugboat chugging slowly across the bay's rich green waters, while fishermen tended their long poles from the beach. Driving to the city past tracks for electric trains, I came to the "Esplanade" road which wraps around Wellington's coastline; I followed it around a long peninsula that jutted out into the bay, passing many joggers and bicyclists, and eventually came to Mount Victoria, where a winding road led to a magnificent viewpoint, 558 feet high, looking over the city. Far below, pinpoints of color marked the locations of wind surfers scudding across the bay. The lights of the city were just coming on, illuminating a group of office buildings, perhaps twenty stories high, that clustered near the six quays on the waterfront. Around these buildings was a maze of narrow streets that climbed steeply into the surrounding hills. Houses were perched on such steeply angled land that street addresses were painted on chimneys. The airport was nestled into a small plain a mile from the downtown area; planes fought a stiff headwind to land.
In looking for a track leading to a seal colony on the west side of the city, I got hopelessly lost and asked for directions at the city dump, where a gate attendant wearing a Harvard tee shirt showed me the way. After driving through Wellington's Happy Valley suburb and through a beachside quarry (dodging some very large trucks), I found a miserable road that soon became too rough to follow. I got out and hiked for an hour to the seal colony, which was empty. The winds blowing in from the sea were very strong, blowing me sideways through the sand and flinging sheets of water over the beach front.
I drove back up the coast to a motor camp at Queen Elizabeth Park, since there were no motor camps in Wellington. A short walk brought me to the beach, where luminescent waves hissed on the sand and thin clouds swept over the moon, shining pale on the horizon.
The next morning, I followed Highway One into Wellington and dropped off the car at Avis. I had pondered the efficacy of several fabricated stories about how two of the door locks were broken, and then surprised myself by telling the truth about the coat hanger, which actually worked. Rental car insurance is mandatory in New Zealand, so all repairs were free.
The Interislander ferry transports people and cars between Wellington on the North Island and Picton on the South Island. I joined a hoard of vacationers on the covered gangway, and was soon roaming the ferry, which has three levels besides a car parking area on the lowest deck. After settling down on the top deck with The Count of Monte Cristo, I didn't look up until the light swells of the Strait disturbed my reading.
The 3 1/2 hour journey to Picton is mostly within protected waters, since Wellington Harbor must be crossed to reach theharbor mouth, and the fjord leading to Picton is quite long. The actual crossing of Cook Strait takes perhaps half of the total transit time. The Strait is frequently obscured by clouds, and that day was no exception. Though the Strait is only a few miles across, the hills on either side look dim when viewed from the middle. I huddled down into my jacket and became absorbed by the Count's revenge in Paris.
Picton is no more than a way station, and is best left immediately. The escape routes are either due south to Blenheim or a sharp right just down the street from the ferry, which turns into a spectacular aerial route, winding around the hills fringing the northern coastline, and eventually terminating at Abel Tasman Park. I took the right turn. The scenery was great, the sun was shining, and I was driving much too fast. Life was good. The radio blared an appropriate Van Halen song:
This must be just like living in paradise, and I don't want to go home.
Zipping through the city of Nelson, I continued on to the (in)famous Rat Trap Hotel in Takaka, which lurks just outside Abel Tasman Park. You can guess what they serve for a luncheon special.
Access to the park is via a long stretch of extremely steep and winding road. A startling sign on the way into the park reads "Penguin Crossing: Please Take Care Next 2 Km".
Already 180 miles from the Picton ferry, I drove an additionaltwenty miles into the park along a dirt road, until it ended at the site of a large estate hacked out of the jungle in the last century, where a primitive motor camp was located. The former owner had planted Macro Carpa trees 134 years ago, which had swollen into a lane of monsters, dwarfing any vehicle driving between them. Abel Tasman is known for the best caving in the country and the Abel Tasman Track. The Track hugs the shoreline, crossing a number of bays during low tide; this enforces some inactivity while waiting for the water level to drop.
While unpacking, I noticed that the bottom of one duffel bag was sticky. The inside of the bag was covered with green goo; a full-size bottle of Prell shampoo had cracked open during the ferry trip, soaking all of my clothes. Wonderful. As I spread out clothes on the ground and sorted through the damage, a bird with a very long bill and about the size of a small chicken edged in near the car, looking for scraps. This was a kea bird. It is as dumb as a post. I sopped up excess shampoo with pieces of toilet paper and threw the resulting gobs into a pile, which the kea mistook to be food. It shot out from under the car, snapped up a dripping green chunk of toilet paper, and scuttled back under the car. After a dozen such trips, I looked under the car to see what was going on. The bird stood on guard between me and its new-found treasure. Fine. I hauled the clothes off to the laundry, and dealt with an enormous shampoo bubble bath for the next two hours.
I spent an hour at twilight arguing with a pair of Germans on the beach about the best way to photograph the moon over the ocean, while alternatively shooing away inquisitive kea birds and slapping at sand flies. James Cook wrote in 1773 that sand flies were "so numerous and... so troublesome that they exceed everything of the kind that I have ever met with." He was exactly right. They appear to have killed off the local mosquito population, and are now intent on doing the same to the humans. The sand fly attack pattern is kamikaze style; they get a good-sized chunk of flesh (usually mine) in their jaws and hang on for the ride.
The alarm went off at 5 a.m. the next morning, because I wanted to get a picture of the sun rising through the morning mists in the Cook Strait. I rolled over with a groan, only to wake again at 6 a.m. and crawl out onto the dewy grass. The beach was just a few yards away. I shuffled over with a camera, tripod, and cable release, and set up the equipment in the dark while being inspected by an ogling kea bird.
I finished working and squatted down in the sand, staring at the bird, which stared back and edged closer. I crawled toward it slowly, making friendly noises, and it backed away the same distance. This process went on for quite some time. Putting myself in the bird's place, there'd be no question about what I would do if a creature twenty times my size crawled towards me; I would start running and would not stop until I hit a tree.
The most aggravating aspect of driving through New Zealand is the single lane bridge, which easily outnumbers the two lane variety. The rule about which car has priority to cross is quite simple - whoever gets to the bridge first wins. This can turn into a game of chicken when both cars arrive at opposite ends of the bridge at the same time, with each car edging forward and revving its engine. When the drivers are especially recalcitrant and neither one backs down, there is sometimes a pullover located in the middle of the bridge where they can pass each other.
There are no radio stations anywhere along the entire length of the South Island's west coast. I set the radio on scan mode, so that it cycled through the entire spectrum of frequencies every minute, and nothing ever came in.
When the seven mile-long Franz Josef Glacier first appeared, I nearly drove off the road in shock. It hung one vertical mile above the highway, enshrouded in mist, dripping over the edge of a monumental slab of black rock. I could imagine the halls of Valhalla hidden away in the gloomy dankness on top of the glacier.
On the road below the glacier, a herd of cows was crossing the road, followed by a herder and his trusty dog. The dog promptly abandoned the herd and came over to sniff my bumper. The cows had no intention of abandoning the road to me, so I cruised along next to the herder, exchanging pleasantries. His accent was completely unintelligible. I cut through a bordering swath of grass to get ahead of the cows, and continued on past fields of hay, where farmers had rolled their hay up and then covered each bundle with a sheet of black plastic; some fields looked as though a nearby volcano had spewed chunks of black igneous rock onto them.
A few miles further south, just outside the town of Fox Glacier, I took a side road leading to the eight miles long Fox Glacier. The glacier was narrow, heavily crevassed, and extremely dirty. A common misconception about glaciers is that they are pristine white from snowfall. Actually, the accumulation of rock and dirt on a glacier from surrounding peaks creates a layer of grime that may be quite thick.
Feeling in need of some exercise, I decided to try climbing Mount Fox, which overlooked the glacier. The ascent was supposed to take eight hours round trip and it was already noon, so I jogged up the lower stretches of the track to save time. This ascent was completely different from the Egmont climb of four days before, where there was no vegetation. Here, the jungle closed in so tightly that the track led under fallen trees, up ladders of gnarled roots, and over steps cut into the sides of trees. Water dripped from palm fronds, filled muddy pools, and softened living bark to paste. After one minute in this environment, I gave up trying to stay clean and emphasized speed instead, jumping into deep mud puddles and swarming up root ladders like a monkey, with gobbets of mud stuck to every part of me.
After an hour, three people came down the trail. They were drenched from the rain fulling further up the peak. The whites of their teeth and eyes shone through the mud covering their bodies. Finally, I popped out of the jungle and into a small clearing that held some teepee poles lashed together. I later found out that this was considered the official summit of Mount Fox. However, the feeble remnants of a path continued along a ridge that ascended into a rain cloud overhead. Being already miserably dirty and one stage away from clothing rot, there was no reason not to keep going into even worse conditions.
Running up through increasingly heavy mist that imperceptibly became rain, I tagged yet another high point on the ridge and then slid back down the trail, which was beginning to resemble an alpine slide. A view of the Fox Glacier appeared far below and then disappeared when a cloud rolled past, like a curtain covering the final act of a play.
I passed the teepee poles and entered the jungle, backpedaling through mud puddles and grasping at branches to stay upright. On three occasions, I hung from tree limbs and crawled out over especially deep mud sinks before dropping into more shallow mud beyond.
Bird calls filled the air. There were three distinct calls; one sounded like a person gargling, another sounded like a hunter was badly misusing a squirrel call, and the last sounded like a Haitian drummer practicing on a Pepsi can.
Finally back by the car after four hours of absolute squalor, I reflected that it must take an especially bad breed of hombre to enjoy climbing in this area. What a mess!
Because of the amount of driving, climbing, and hiking going on, there never seemed to be enough time for a proper meal. Instead, I ate enormous quantities of bananas in the car, and threw the peels out the window. Littering is illegal in New Zealand, so I imagined a "Banana Police" squad following my tracks all over the country...
[flashing lights in the background]
Constable: Look. Sir, here's another peel!
Lieutenant: Damn, he gave us the slip at Hokitika, and now he's done it again!
... [back to reality] I also developed a technique of splitting a slice of cheese into four squares and balancing the small pile on one knee while driving, thus giving easy access for munching. The other staple was yogurt, especially apricot yogurt. Eating this required a spoon. I refused to clean the spoon. By the end of three weeks, the spoon developed a coating so powerful that I could conveniently stick it to the ceiling. Then, when it was time to eat another yogurt, I simply reached up, detached the spoon, and started eating.
The southern terminus of all roads on the west coast is the village of Haast, which was hosting a sand fly convention when I arrived for the night. While fighting off swarms of bugs burrowing into my hair, ears, and other tender spots, I set a speed record for setting up the tent, jumped into it, and broke the tent zipper in my haste. After stuffing the hole thus created with socks, I spent the rest of the night tracking down and smooshing any sand flies left in the tent.
While taking the national. highway inland in the morning, I traveled along the periphery of Mount Aspiring National Park. Access to its peaks is difficult, requiring several days of backpacking to reach. The highway turned into a dirt surface and stayed that way for about fifty miles. I finally arrived at Queenstown, which is the fun capital of the country. Any kind of activity can be booked there, ranging from bungy jumping to parapenting; people can take a tram up to the Skyline Chalet on 1,530 foot Bob's Peak above the town, and jump off to float back to the center of town. The myriad gift shops contain goods from all over the country. You can even buy a model Maori war canoe for $350.
The Routeburn Track travels between Mount Aspiring National Park and the 3 million acre Fjordland National Park, yielding fine views of both areas. This is a mountainous hike involving 2,500 feet of elevation gain. It is 39 kilometers long and is estimated to take an average of 13 hours to traverse. The record time for a traverse is 5.5 hours. Based on my round-trips of both halves of the track, I estimate that a day trip covering the entire trail can be completed by a fit hiker in 7.5 hours, though that would be very tiring, and would not do justice to the scenery. This is an exceptionally well maintained track; some of the lowland areas may be smooth enough to push a wheel chair along. Weather is supposed to be a problem near the middle of the track, since that area is above tree line.
The track can be started from either end. I traveled it as a pair of day trips, hiking to the middle of the track from Glenorchy on one day, and then driving around to the Te Anau side to finish the other half. To reach Glenorchy, drive for nearly an hour down a very dusty dirt road from Queenstown, following the side of 1,000 foot deep Lake Wakatipu. From there, drive an additional 26 kilometers to the trailhead, following road signs for the Routeburn Track all the way from Glenorchy. From Queenstown, the trailhead is about 78 kilometers away. The Track immediately crosses a river on a suspension bridge and travels some five miles through rain forest to the Routeburn Flats Hut, whereupon it climbs steeply for 2 miles to the Routeburn Falls Hut. It is in this area that the track occasionally breaks free of the forest, giving fine views down the valley just ascended. This is a humid area, so expect to be very sweaty before reaching the Falls Hut. For those staying overnight, the Falls Hut is more popular (and more crowded) than the Flats Hut. From the Falls Hut to the Harris Saddle (high point of the track), an additional 3 miles of exposed, steep terrain must be covered, climbing high above and to the left of Lake Harris. From the saddle, a short side path involving 750 vertical feet of climbing leads to the top of Conical Hill for somewhat better views than can be had from the saddle. There is a small emergency shelter located at the saddle. The hiking time from the trailhead to this shelter and back to the trailhead, a distance of twenty miles, is six hours.
Arriving back in Glenorchy, I had my first sit-down meal in eight days, going to the local tea rooms for a hamburger (they add beet slices for flavor), and talked to a couple from St. Louis who were preparing for a trek along the Milford Track. As is common throughout the country, a map of the world was posted on the wall, and visitors were encouraged to punch a pin into the spots signifying their home towns. The West German part of the map was covered with pins. A few days later, the newspapers ran a story about the general store attached to these tea rooms having burned down.
I spotted the T.S.S. Earnslaw chugging down the lake during the drive back out to Queenstown. This is a coal-burning steamship that has been servicing various spots around the lake since 1912. After reaching Queenstown, I headed south to Te Anau to access the other end of the Routeburn Track. The road from Queenstown to Te Anau is beautiful, featuring a long drive down Lake Wakatipu with mountains rising on the far side of the lake. The lake is later replaced by a series of sheep farms planted with a unique, emerald-green grass.
From the west side of the track, access is by a fine road from Te Anau that is 85 km from the trailhead. The track starts at the Divide, the lowest pass in the Southern Alps at 1,752 feet (where a shelter is located) and travels to the Howden Hut, which is 2 miles away. At this point, the Greenstone Track branches off and heads south. An additional six miles must be covered to reach the MacKenzie Hut, while a final six miles is needed through steep, exposed terrain to reach the Harris Saddle. A good spot for a rest is Lake Mackenzie, situated next to the hut of that name. Possibly the finest spot on the west side of the Routeburn Track is Earland Falls, located close to the Howden Hut. I encountered the falls during a foggy ascent and a sunny descent, thereby seeing it in two radically different types of lighting. The falls are at their best in fog or mist, because the cliff surface behind the falling water is composed of gray clay; in diffused lighting, it is impossible to focus on the rock - an eerie quality I have never seen anywhere else.
During the return trip to the Divide, the thumping beat of a helicopter interrupted the quiet; many mountain huts are supplied by helicopter, and this one made several trips along the track with a large satchel of equipment slung under its belly. I covered the round trip from the Divide to Mackenzie Hut and back, a distance of sixteen miles, in 5-1/2 hours.
Milford Sound wasn't too far from the trailhead, so I drove west toward it through the Cleddau Valley, past the Hollyford Track turnoff, and reached the Homer Tunnel. This is a mile-long tunnel cutting through the Darran Range; it looks like it was never finished, since there is no lighting. Water sprays down through cracks in the rocks overhead onto the dirt road below, and no concrete was ever spread over the walls, leaving raw, cut rock protruding. I drove through very carefully, since the headlights could not cut through the mist rising from the poorly maintained dirt track, nor through the sheets of water falling from above. Several minutes passed, punctuated by water pattering down on the car roof and glimpses of split rock heaved to either side.
Bursting suddenly into the sunlight, I swept down a fine sealed road flanked by towering peaks. The road terminated at Milford Sound. The Sound was a combination of disappointment and spectacular scenery. It was disappointing in that the area was entirely commercial. Construction along the waterfront raised a pall of dust as a line of construction trucks lumbered past. Tourist planes roared overhead while tourist boats created a logjam in the Sound. As an added inconvenience, the gas station was so understaffed that it was only open at 1:30 p.m. and again at 3:30 p.m.
On the other hand, the Sound has the tallest sea-cliffs in the world; it is ten miles long and 1-1/2 miles wide, and drops as deep as 1,280 feet below sea level. Mitre Peak springs straight up on the left side of the Sound to a height of 5,560 feet, and is opposed by the Bowen Falls on the opposite shore, whose waters fall 520 feet into the Sound.
I had no desire to stay at the ramshackle motor camp just down the road, and headed back to the tunnel. A stalled construction rig in the middle of the tunnel allowed a space barely wide enough to squeeze the car through. A glum highway department employee guided me through the muck while rain pattered down on his hard hat.
That night was blustery and rainy in Te Anau; I slept along the windward side of the tent to keep it from collapsing under the onslaught. The Southern Alps receive more than two hundred inches of rain per year, and I'm sure we received most of it that night.
The Hollyford Track lies within Fjordland National Park. From Te Anau, drive over 60 miles towards Milford Sound on Highway 94, taking a right at the Lower Hollyford Road. This is a 12 mile dirt road. The track starts at the end of the road. Move quickly at the start, for the sand fly population is voracious.
This is a lowland track with very little elevation gain, so it is flat, wet, and muddy in many areas. Boots and gaiters are an absolute requirement, especially after the first hut is reached. Long pants are helpful, since the track is infested with a plant that hooks its seeds into the skin of your legs as you brush past it. The quality of the track construction degrades the further in you go. The poor condition of the track appears to have kept away many hikers, for I saw about one tenth as many people on this track than were on the Routeburn Track. Despite its problems, the Hollyford has great photographic possibilities, and is worth a few hours of hiking if only to listen to the bird song.
Near the beginning, the track follows wooden platforms that have been bolted into a rock face. It follows the right side of a valley, so that all views are to the left, where a range of glaciated peaks spring up 6,000 feet from the valley floor. The peaks in the range, from left to right, are Mounts Madeline, Tutoko, Alice, and Puketurota. This is a tropical rain forest area, so the track will be frequently enclosed, with no views. The Hidden Waterfall must be seen, especially when the afternoon sun creates a rainbow above it. It is best photographed from a suspension bridge located slightly downstream from it. The track reaches a hut a short distance after the waterfall and then climbs about four hundred feet before descending into a morass of mud-filled track for several miles. Though there is another waterfall further down the track, Little Homer Falls, the effort of reaching it is not worth the view. From Hidden Waterfall to Lake Alabaster, some three to four hours of hiking away, the track is not well maintained and can be a discouraging experience due to the amount of mud encountered.
I traveled as far as Lake Alabaster, which is beautiful, but infested with sand flies. The track ends at Martins Bay after a hike of 57 kilometers, and is rated as a 19 hour hike. I only completed the first third of the track in a 26 mile round trip (nine hours travel time), and therefore cannot comment on conditions encountered through the remainder of the track. A separate trail splits away from the Hollyford at Lake Alabaster, traveling the length of the lake and continuing on to the coast, passing Alabaster Falls and Olivine Falls.
I drove north to the Mount Cook area via Highway 8. The route took me past a cyclist with horns sticking out of his helmet; the next surprise was the city of Cromwell, which was the center of a large fruit growing region in the center of the island. It had built a massive sculpture near the highway consisting of fruit piled up in a heap. It looked just like the Fruit-of-the-Loom logo.
The climate became increasingly dry and hot. Vegetation was reduced to low scrub brush. The mountains lining the island's west coast effectively block all moisture from traveling inland, thereby creating this parched area.
Mount Cook National Park is located near the center of the South Island. Access is from Highway 80 from Twizel, which follows an alluvial lake as it enters a long valley dominated by Mount Cook (12,349 feet), the highest point in New Zealand. The road enters the park, passes the Mount Cook airport and splits into three roads. A dirt road leads to the Tasman Glacier to the right, from which a track leads to the Ball emergency shelter, where partial views of Mount Tasman (11,475 feet) and Mount Haidinger (10,059 feet) may be obtained. Another dirt road heads straight up the valley to a poor camping area, situated directly beneath the massive east wall of Mount Sefton. The main road bends left and terminates at the Hermitage, a 108-room hotel situated across the valley from, and having a magnificent view of Mount Cook. The 57 room Glencoe Lodge, just down the street from the Hermitage, has cheaper accommodations. From the Hermitage, a very steep trail with man-made steps mounts the side of Mount Ollivier, giving spectacular views of the hanging glaciers on Mount Sefton (10,359 feet), Mount Cook, and a side valley containing the Mueller Glacier.
Mount Cook is also known as Aorangi, the "cloud piercer". It was first climbed in 1894, and is now climbed by about 100 people per year. It can be summited in 4 days, but 7 days is the average because of layovers for bad weather. The climbing season is from mid-November to mid-March. The most common route to the top is via the Linda Glacier and the Northeast Ridge from the Plateau Hut. The climb from this hut is 15-18 hours round trip; the vertical gain from the hut is 5,500 feet. Since the route is not obvious and can be dangerous (the summit ridge is quite exposed), a guide is recommended. Other routes up the peak are the Zurbriggens, West Ridge, Grand Traverse, and North Ridge.
From either the Hermitage or the camping area, another track crosses two large suspension bridges spanning the Hooker River and advances up the left side of the Hooker Glacier for close-up views of Mount Cook. The track is also part of the Copland Track, which ascends the opposite side of the valley from Mount Cook, crosses the Copland Pass (and Copland Hut) at 7,050 feet, and then plunges down into the Copland River Valley and heads off to the west coast. For those not willing to ascend to the pass, a good termination point would be the Hooker Hut, which is a three hour walk from the campground and is located just before the point on the Copland Track where it starts to ascend to the Copland Pass.
Further up the Hooker Glacier, the Gardiner Hut and the Empress Hut are used by mountaineers ascending Mount Cook and other points at the head of the valley.
Being alone in New Zealand, it was never my intention to climb a difficult peak or put myself into a dangerous situation during a hike. Nonetheless, the Copland Track was to become a very "interesting" situation. I take notes with a pocket recorder; generally, my delivery is matter-of-fact. After the Copland Track debacle, however, my voice sounded shriveled, dry and raspy; all inflection had been worn away by the stress of the day.
Getting up early, I drove to the campground next to the Hennitage and hiked from there along the Copland Track. The path crossed a large suspension bridge where the Hooker River roared below. It crossed the river again via another suspension bridge where the valley took a sharp turn, revealing the towering south ridge of Mount Cook. The trail continued around the left side of the valley, next to the seven mile long Hooker Glacier, to the Hooker Hut, where a few hikers were sunning themselves in the early morning light. Mount Cook lay on the opposite side of the glacier, while a separate range of high peaks ascended into the clouds above the hut. Just past the hut, the track angled sharply left and entered a scree-filled gully. After a ten minute scramble, the track mounted a small ridge, from which a cable dangled to assist in descending to the other side of the ridge. After descending, the track continued to mount the hillside, staying to the left of a large stream filled with glacial runoff from the hanging glaciers looming overhead.
Here lay my mistake. A rock slide had obliterated the path. I assumed that it stayed to the left side of the stream, and went in that direction. Instead, the track dipped into the stream bed, crossed over, and wended away to the north. To add to my confusion, several fresh footprints led off in the direction where I thought the track had gone. Casting about for footprints or cairns, I continued along the edge of the gully. A ridge came down to meet the gully after a hundred yards. Since it seemed to be the obvious place to go, I went up the ridge. The route was a mess. Even after climbing three hundred mountains, I've rarely seen such a combination of steepness and loose scree. Edging along on all fours and scampering sideways as much as upwards to avoid small rock slides, I eventually gained the crest of the ridge.
Looking back down, it was apparent that descending this ridge could be dangerous, because the risk of dislodging a rock slide was so high. On the other hand, this did not appear to be the Copland Track. I heard a clanking sound from above. A climber was several hundred vertical feet above me, ice axe in hand (which had caused the noise), edging along a cliff face. It seemed unlikely that both of us were off track, so I concluded that the Copland Track did go up this ridge - I just wasn't exactly on the path.
The ridge was set at about a forty-five degree angle. This may not seem excessively dangerous, but then consider that the ridge was punctuated by a series of small cliffs, many of which I had to climb. In addition, the quality of rock was similar to that found in the Elk Range in Colorado; very breakable, with sharp edges. The rock was so sharp that I later counted twelve cuts on my hands.
Since the rock fragmented so easily, the entire surface of the ridge was covered with scree, which made footing precarious. In addition, either side of the ridge dropped off vertically for several hundred feet.
A typical ridge section would involve sliding across a patch of scree; such a slide may not seem worth mentioning, except that it invariably terminated at the edge of a cliff: so one slip and a little sliding meant certain injury, or worse. Directly above each of these scree patches would be a ten to thirty foot cliff, from which all the scree had come. Sometimes these cliffs could be bypassed; sometimes not. If a cliff ascent was required, then a fast scramble up the face was necessary, since the rock would crack and break loose if I stood on it too long.
I crept around to the left side of the ridge, looking for a passage past an especially difficult line of cliffs. I hopped over a patch of scree and landed on a loose rock, which skittered off the edge of the nearby precipice. Several seconds passed before the sound of its impact reached me. Now about halfway up the ridge, I stopped to look around; having ascended two thousand feet from the spot where the Copland Track was washed out, I had a fine view of my route so far.
Far below, the tiny figure of a hiker moved along the Copland Track, crossed the gully, and headed north. Scanning the area ahead of the hiker, the track suddenly became apparent as it looped around the hulking shoulder of the adjacent peak and commenced a series of switch backs. ending in - a hut!
It was still well above me, perhaps another two thousand feet up, but the unmistakable outline of a hut had appeared, perched on a small rock platform below a cleft in the summit ridge. The cleft must be Copland Pass. Now that I was certain of being off-route, there was a choice of going back or of climbing to the top, traversing the summit ridge to the Copland Hut, and then taking the Copland Track back down. Considering the evil condition of the ridge below me, I figured that the remaining ascent could not be any worse, and decided to continue.
The ridge continued at the same level of difficulty for another hour; my progress was very slow. As the amount of vertical feet below increased, so did my level of discomfort. With unknown territory ahead and a difficult descent below, I felt trapped by a pair of bad choices.
Finally, I reached a circular, flat area, about fifteen feet across, that would be a fabulous campsite for anyone foolish enough to bring a tent up there. I dubbed it the "Platform." The views from this point were spectacular, with the Copland Hut on one side, a hanging glacier on the other, the Hooker Glacier winding below, and the great bulk of Mount Cook looming across the valley. Up above, the ridge steepened sharply. A hundred yards up the ridge was the other climber. Now that he was close enough, we tried shouting to each other. From his accent, I guessed that he was a German. Like me, he had been confused at the washout and gone up the ridge in search of the Copland Track. He was heading for the summit ridge with the similar intention of crossing over to the Copland Hut.
I pulled out a map of the area and concluded that I was nearing the top of Madonna Peak. The remaining ridge line looked worst in the middle. The German had disappeared around to the right side; I thought the left side looked easier, and went that way. The lower ridge sections were easy compared to the climbing now. The angle of ascent was about fifty degrees, and both the amount of scree underfoot and the size and sheerness of the cliffs increased. In addition. a hundred foot fall onto a hanging glacier now lay to my left. Moving with infinite care, I ascended a long series of cliffs with no secure points on which to stand. Finally, I gained a small platform where the ridge narrowed to a few feet in width.
Looking down the other side, I spotted the Gennan several hundred feet below. Above me, the ridge continued to narrow down into a razor-sharp crest of granite, with a huge drop to the right. On the left side, the hanging glacier had crept in close and hugged the cold rock of the ridge. The glacier crossed over the ridge a few hundred yards ahead, requiring a crossing of the glacier at that point.
I climbed further up the ridge until it became too sharp to stay on top. Then I dropped off to the left side and traveled on with my right foot on the ridge rock and my left foot on the firm snow of the glacier, straddling a small crevasse separating the rock from the snow. Coming at length to the spot where the glacier covered the ridge, I kicked steps into the snow, climbing a short, steep stretch to the top of the glacier. Walking carefully to avoid hidden crevasses, I crossed to the final rock band leading to the summit. Scanning the rocks above, I realized that these cliffs were impenetrable without a protecting rope. Any fall would land me on the hanging glacier, probably too stunned to stop. I could not estimate the size of the drop off the edge of the glacier; the snow curled away like the crest of a wave, with nothing below it but a great volume of air. I later estimated the drop was two thousand feet into an avalanche chute.
There was no decision to be made; I could not go on. Looking below, I could not see the German anywhere. He must have given up and headed back down. I never saw him again, and can only assume that he descended safely. It was now 2 p.m., it having taken seven hours to reach the high point, which was about a hundred feet below the top of Madonna Peak. I was not equipped for an overnight stay, having only carried enough gear for a supposedly easy walk along the Copland Track. The sun would set behind the ridge in four hours. There was no time to waste. I jumped a three-foot crevasse to get back onto the glacier and crossed it quickly. Having eliminated the danger of the glacier, I could then concentrate on the dangerous ridge descent back to the Platform.
One advantage of descending a steep route is that finding a path by looking downward is much easier that route finding during the ascent. I spotted a good route that looped far around to the right. Though very close to the edge of a towering cliff, I followed the track down anyway, avoiding all the trouble encountered on the way up. However, shortly before reaching the Platform, this new route dead ended in an awful scree traverse which had zero margin for error. Any slip would send me over the cliff. It was at this point that I created the Platoon.
The Platoon was not a hallucination. I was alone and faced with a difficult descent of several thousand vertical feet. Since no one was around to talk to, I created a few people. The Platoon started out as The Captain who was reviewing my perfonnance as Platoon Leader; it was my job as the Lieutenant to get the Platoon down the mountain safely. The Master Sergeant soon appeared, who relayed my commands on to the rest of the Platoon. Finally, there was Corporal Reynolds, the designated whiner. Perched above the scree traverse, the conversation in my mind. went something like this:
Captain [sternly]: All right now, son, I want a decision right now. What are you going to do?
Me [knees knocking]: Shit. I'm going to die.
Might as well get it over with.
Master Sergeant: You heard the Lieutenant, soldiers, let's move out.
Corporal Reynolds: You want me to cross that scree slope? Do I look stupid?
Maintaining this running conversation in my mind blocked out the panic that surely would have arisen if there were nothing to occupy my thoughts. I finally made it back to the Platform, to uncover the next crisis; both water bottles were empty. The Hooker Hut, with a large barrel of rain water, was clearly visible two thousand feet below. The trick was getting there fast. From this vantage point, it became apparent that the ridge I had ascended to the Platform had a neighboring ridge that swung away to the right and then curved back in near the valley floor, terminating scant yards from the original ridge. It appeared to be covered with scree, but had very few cliffs. It was also steep as hell.
Captain: Son, it's time for a decision. I want a decision now. Let's hear the decision.
Me: Going back the same way is as nasty as it gets. Let's take a chance and try the new ridge.
Master Sergeant: You heard the Lieutenant, you grunts! We'll be cuddled up in our tents in no time. Now we're gonna' scoot down this here little side ridge. Reynolds, you take the lead.
Reynolds: What!? I'lll slip off that thing and be airborne for an hour!
Master Sergeant: The Lieutenant says it can be done, so it can be done. Now if you don't get started, I'll boot you airborne.
In a partially controlled rock slide that lasted well over an hour, I "screed" down the slope. The worst danger was of getting caught in a rock slide and swept off the edge; a quick step to the side pulled me out of many incipient slides that built up like avalanches and swept many large rocks over the cliff. Time passed quickly as I became engrossed in the burgeoning conversation within the Platoon. It was a wonderfully useful way to channel an overactive imagination into safe areas.
Striding down the final scree slope, all I could think about was getting a drink at the Hooker Hut, which was right around the corner. Upon reaching the hut. I opened the spigot on the water barrel, filled up a water bottle, and took a long, long pull, with a thin stream of water trickling down my chin. Never had anything tasted so sweet!
Nearing the trailhead, four hours since leaving the high point on Madonna Peak, I passed a hiker carrying a huge awning, strapped to the side of his backpack; truly a laid-back attitude to traveling in the wilderness.
The Mount Cook area is located at about 47 degrees south latitude. Consequently, the night sky is completely different from the sky as seen from the United States. Since the weather was clear at bed time, I set the alarm for 11 p.m. to get back up for constellation watching. The bleating of sheep and the poor singing of 60's music by a pack of women in the kitchen didn't hasten the onset of sleep.
The southern sky is magnificent! The only recognizable constellation was Orion. A large number of first and second magnitude stars were scattered like fallen beads through the Milky Way, glowing bright across the sky. The large and small Magellanic Clouds hovered in the inky void to one side of the Milky Way; these miniature galaxies are physically positioned just outside our galaxy. The larger cloud is three times larger than the smaller cloud. Also, there was a hole in the Milky Way about the size of the large Magellanic Cloud; this may have been the center of our galaxy, which some speculate contains a black hole. I stood quietly near the tent for some time, peacefully watching meteorites flare and fade.
For the next day's hike, I drove back into the park and took a side road leading to the Tasman Glacier, which is 1,500 feet thick and eighteen miles long. The road was barred to rental cars early on, so I hiked along the road, paralleling the glacier for two more miles before the road disappeared beneath a series of small rock falls. The eleven mile long Murchison Glacier merged with the Tasman Glacier at this point, coming down a side valley on the opposite side of the Tasman. Mount Tasman dominates the head of the Tasman Glacier. It is 11,475 feet high, and can be climbed via its North Ridge from the Pioneer Hut. I hiked another couple of miles to the Ball emergency shelter.
While resting at the shelter and admiring the view, a climber came running down the path from a direction further up the glacier, shot past me into the shelter, and pulled out an emergency radio. He established contact with a park ranger. From the conversation that followed, I gathered that he had been guiding a small group up the Tasman Glacier when one climber slipped, cutting a four inch gash below his knee, through which the bone could be seen. A helicopter was being sent. I cruised down the trail for a closer view of the helicopter, which arrived a half hour later. It settled far out in the middle of the glacier for the pick-up, and then roared directly overhead on its way out of the valley. That could have been me on Madonna Peak the day before.
On my final day in the Mount Cook area, I decided to climb to the Mueller Hut and the adjacent Mount Ollivier. Driving in from a motor camp some twenty miles from the trailhead, I went through the morning ritual of avoiding hawks in the road who were feasting on dead rabbits. Rabbits are considered a plague in New Zealand, and many of them are killed by drivers at night when the rabbits are sitting on the warm tar roads. Therefore, each morning, the large hawk population circles down for a free meal. Sometimes the hawks aren't fast enough to get out of the way of approaching vehicles, and soon there's an extra carcass on the road.
The raging debate while I was there was whether or not a manmade plague virus should be released into the rabbit population, which was causing considerable trouble for the farmers. The virus was supposed to kill off 99.9 percent of the rabbit population.
I stopped at the Hermitage to exchange some money. While standing by the car, something hit the roof with a loud thump. The biggest parakeet I've ever seen perched on the metal surface, its claws scrabbling for a grip. A loud bang nearby told of the arrival of another parakeet, which had crash landed on a van with an open sunroof. The parakeet on my car edged closer, looking for a handout. The other bird was startled from its breaking and entering activities by the arrival of the van's frantic owner, who shooed it away. The ruckus scared away my bird as well, which trundled across the parking lot to consort with the Hermitage's kitchen staff.
Starting near the Hermitage Hotel, the trail ascended, steep as a ladder, some 4,000 vertical feet to the Mueller Hut. The track was entirely exposed to the sun; the heat throbbed up through my boots as I climbed. Because of the rapid ascent, the view of the Cook Valley quickly opened up below, showing the Hooker Glacier directly across the valley, with Mount Cook looming darkly over it. Mount Sefton's huge 7,000 foot east face hung suspended to one side, seemingly close enough to touch. Sefton is 10,359 feet high, and is almost unclimbable from the east side, though it was summited via the West Ridge as long ago as 1895. Avalanches thundered down the face regularly as the sun broke loose great chunks of ice from the hanging glaciers suspended over the valley.
Despite the vertical gain, I completed the climb to the hut in just two hours. I continued on a half hour to the double summit of Ollivier, from which there were fine views of the eight mile long Mueller Glacier.
I hunkered down on Ollivier's crown, changing the film in my camera. Suddenly a Japanese climber popped up over the ridg. and initiated a memorable conversation.
"Allo!" He cried.
His accent was atrocious, so I figured his vocabulary was limited, and tried talking slowly.
"Hello (I was sure he knew that one). Nice weather today, huh?"
[Long pause while we stared at each other]
"Allo! You go to Mueller Hut?" He asked.
''Yes.'' I replied. "I just came from the hut."
"Allo! You come from Mueller Hut?"
Looking patient, I answered affirmatively. and pointed down the ridge. "The hut is over there."
"Yes!" He responded enthusiastically. "I come to there hourly!"
Maybe it was time to leave before my brain turned to mush. I put on my biggest grin, hastily packed up, and backed off the summit, waving in what I hoped was a friendly manner. "Good-bye!"
I hiked back down to the car, past a line of sweating people who should have started earlier, before the sun baked the trail. It was time to take the ferry back to the North Island, so I drove back to the coast, passing a covered wagon that contained an entire household and its belongings, and being pulled by a pair of Clydesdales. A good area for cycling was Highway 79 between Geraldine and Fairleigh, which passed through low hills that were carpeted with sheep, silos, and barns.
The drive up the east coast to Picton was much nicer than its west coast equivalent, because there were no sand flies and because a number of picturesque wineries dotted the hills. I rolled into the Picton motor camp to await the next morning's ferry. A classically New Zealand sign greeted me near the entrance, where the trailer disposal facility was located. An arrow pointed to a hole in the ground, and a sign read, "Caravan Disposal, Sewage Waste, and Tea Leaves."
After getting off the ferry the next morning, I headed north into a line of thunderstorms building beyond the hills above Wellington, found the east coast, and followed it north. I was headed for the East Cape, which is located on the northeast corner of the North Island. A map of the 100 best peaks to climb, posted in the Tongariro National Park Visitor Center, had itemized Mount Hikurangi, on the East Cape. My road map showed an access road passing near it so the peak seemed like a worthwhile climbing target.
I found the correct road leading inland to Hikurangi from the coast, and drove along it past farmland that mounted up the sides of rough hills on either side of a long valley. This road was to be a new experience in just how poorly defined the words "public roadway" can be. My valiant little Corolla crossed three fords. The last one was bad enough for me to get out of the car and heave aside those rocks with pieces of other people's cars stuck to them. Finally, the road died out in a jungle area. Through the foliage the large, steaming mass of vegetation known as Mount Hikurangi could be seen. Not wanting to repeat my Mount Fox experience and come out of the jungle looking (and smelling) like a malodorous warthog, I turned the car around and headed back to the coastal road.
The East Cape had a thriving lumber industry, if the number of lumber trucks, reseeded hills, and clear-cut areas were any evidence. A large number of poor Maoris lived in this area. Of the 3.2 million people in New Zealand, ten percent were Maori. I slowly circled the Cape, following a winding road. A group of pigs blocked the road at one point, followed at infrequent intervals by horses, sheep, and cows. The life style on the East Cape was decidedly slower than in most parts of the country, and it was liberally sprinkled with small beachside hotels for those wanting to get away from the busier parts of New Zealand. To the north of the Cape, in the Bay of Plenty, sat White Island, which was an active volcano. A plume of white smoke was clearly visible as I passed it.
I next wanted to go back to Tongariro National Park for some climbing. On the way. I stopped at the Maori Arts and Crafts Institute in Rotorua; this is a small school in which Maoris learn their old wood carving crafts. The items made here are generally not for sale, since their products are used to replace fixed artifacts that are rotting away in various parts of the country (mainly the East Cape). Those items that were for sale cost about ten times as much as the tourist replicas on sale elsewhere.
As an amusing sidelight, I needed to use the rest room at the Institute. However, all signs there were written in Maori. The Maori name for "Men" is "Taana." I waited around outside either of the two possible choices to see who came out before making my selection.
I finally arrived back at the Whakapapa Motor Camp at Tongariro National Park. Since it was still early, I bought a newspaper to read. New Zealand has many newspapers. The two largest ones in the South Island are the Southland Times and The Press. In the North Island, the Auckland Herald and The Dominion are the most widely distributed. These papers emphasize international news and sports, as well as exceptionally well-written editorials. Being a small country, there is not much domestic news to report.
Mount Ruapehu, at an altitude of 9,175 feet, is the highest peak in the North Island; that distinction does not make it the best climb or even the best looking mountain in the North Island. An explosion in the second century blew the top off what must have been a substantially higher mountain, leaving a sliced-off base covered with rubble. It is also covered with chair lifts, since there are ski resorts located on either side of it. Despite its truncation, it is still high enough to pose a danger during bad weather. During a snowstorm the previous winter, six Army trainees froze to death on it.
To climb the peak, I drove up the well-maintained Bruce Road from the Whakapapa Motor Camp for four miles to the base of the Whakapapa Ski field. From there, the route led under a series of three consecutive ski lifts, straight up the slopes. The route was not as easy as I've described it here; the chair lifts crossed a series of cliffs and there was no clear track, so I followed numerous access roads amongst the cliffs in a generally upward manner. The weather forecast had not been good the night before, and a sea of clouds encompassed the peak, with only the spire of Mount Egmont piercing through far to the west, along with the perfect cone of Mount Ngauruhoe nearby. After passing the last of the chair lifts, a line of cairns appeared to guide me up to the crater rim. Actually, far too many cairns appeared, but the majority of them led in the same direction - up and to the right. All along the ascent route and even near the top, the ground was littered with scraps of wire. Perhaps someone had once tried to run wires up to a building on the summit. It took only two hours to reach the crater rim from the parking lot. As expected, the summit cone was a mess. It consisted of two craters; one was filled with sludge and sulfur-coated rocks, while the other contained a small lake rimmed with ice.
After circling around the rim a short distance, I came upon an unoccupied summit shelter. There were three spots around the rim that appeared to be somewhat higher than the summit hut, but the clouds below were beginning to ascend Ruapehu's slopes, so I opted to descend instead of climbing all three points. I meandered down, paying more attention to photographing Mount Ngauruhoe nestled in a bed of cottony clouds than to my route, and ended up having to traverse across the base of the ski area to reach my car. One item to remember on the descent is to constantly bear right to arrive at the parking lot. The park service estimates a round trip travel time of seven hours for this peak, but I found that four hours was quite sufficient.
Having some spare time available before attempting Mount Ngauruhoe the next day, I drove around to the far side of Ruapehu, where the Turoa Ski Field was located, and hiked to the Waitonga Falls, hoping for a good photograph. However, it was the dry season, and there was very little of the waterfall left to see.
On the morning of the Mount Ngauruhoe climb, the weather was not good. A band of dark clouds sat above the treetops without any apparent inclination to move. I packed up anyway, determined to attempt at least a portion of the climb. The track leading to the summit started at the end of a four mile dirt road which in turn branched from the highway about ten miles from the motor camp. A glimmering of light filtered through cracks in the cloud cover as I maneuvered the car around mud-filled potholes left by the previous night's rain. After parking near a comforting "Warning: Thieves are Operating" sign, I shrugged on my pack and started down the path. The track vanished into a fog bank. I followed it into the mist, and was enveloped by a sound-deadening wall of white in which shrubs rose up suddenly and as quickly vanished as I hurried along. Whenever I stopped, the only sounds were the moaning of the wind through the sparse vegetation and the lonesome drip of water from plant stems. I felt utterly alone.
The track continued on for nearly an hour, perfectly flat. A brief hole in the clouds offered a stunning view of Ngauruhoe's rim, bedecked with puffy white clouds. As suddenly, it was gone. I turned my attention to the track, which began to climb rapidly, switch backing between wooden posts driven into the raw earth. The cloud cover became dense as I ascended, with visibility shrinking to only twenty yards. The wind's intensity increased markedly, driving down the chill factor. After thirty minutes of climbing, the track ended on a small plateau. I could barely see ascending slopes sweeping away to both the left and right. To the left was Mount Tongariro, a battered old crater whose only attraction was a set of small lakes near its summit. To the right was Mount Ngauruhoe. I went right.
Most volcanoes are a pain to climb because of the shifting pumice sand underfoot. However, there are few cliffs to fall over, and the angle of ascent is low enough to provide an easy ascent. Besides the weather and the occasional volcanic explosion, the only danger to be aware of is the lahar. A lahar is a mudslide caused by the supersaturation of volcanic ash by rainfall. It acts like an avalanche, reaching speeds of 50 mph and obliterating anything in its path as it sweeps downhill. Mount Ruapehu had been the site of many lahars; warnings were posted in the visitor center, showing several historical lahar paths through Whakapapa Village (including one right through the motor camp).
A line of posts was dimly visible, ascending an unremarkable slope that faded away in the rushing mists. The temperature continued to drop as I followed this line, requiring a stop to put on "battle gear." On climbs where conditions warrant donning all of my survival equipment, I'm always reminded of the scene in the movie Excalibur. where Sir Kay strides down a castle corridor, calling out, "Servants! Squires! Knights! Prepare for battle!" I do not carry a lance when climbing, but the analogy isn't too farfetched. I zipped into polypropelene pants and jacket, and then donned a two-piece expedition weight Gore- Tex shell suit, finishing off with woolen mittens covered by Gore- Tex shells and a woolen hat covered by a Gore- Tex hood.
So garbed, I marched up into the gloom. Time passed. A seagull appeared over my head, rocking from side to side as it hovered in the gale. An especially strong gust slammed into the mountainside, kicking up ash and forcing me to look away. A moment later, the bird was gone.
The posts had vanished, so I adopted a rocky ridge leading up as my new guide. It provided good footing and occasional protection from the wind, which seemed determined to scoop me up and send me spinning off into the clouds.
The red and blue color of my shell suit gradually faded to brown as volcanic ash coated it. Since I was in the clouds and therefore climbing through 100% humidity, the ash became mixed with water, creating a thin layer of sludge. As the altitude increased, the temperature dropped to freezing, which hardened the sludge layer. As I moved, the ice-mud mix cracked and sloughed off, giving the appearance of a world-class case of dandruff. Given the weather and the state of my clothing, I was less than happy; however, after some reflection, I concluded that this must happen to everyone at some time in their lives, and that I was only receiving my due share.
The crater rim finally appeared, as well as a strong odor of sulfur. A vague path materialized and wandered off to the left into extremely thick fog. Visibility was now down to about ten yards. After following the track over sulfur-stained rocks for two hundred yards, a pile of rocks appeared with a pole forced into its top. I had attained the summit of Ngauruhoe at 7,515 feet, though the expected view resembled the billowing fog of a Hound of the Baskervilles movie set.
After spending a fruitful five seconds on top, I hurried back along the track. My climbing philosophy is oriented toward safety, which means one should be on the mountain for as short a time as possible to reduce the period during which an accident may happen. One manifestation of this method is my "tag" approach to a summit. It is the most exposed point on a peak, where the climber is just asking to be toasted by a lightning bolt or knocked over by an especially fierce wind gust. Consequently, I get off the summit quickly and admire the view from a safer spot on the peak.
Just as I left the track and began to plunge back down the slope,. a figure appeared a few feet away; the heavy fog was thickening at every step, and objects appeared and disappeared as though they were extras on a stage. It was a German climber. He was thinly clad at best, with water running down his bare legs and ice in his matted black hair. He wanted to stay on top and read a book until the weather cleared (!). I advised a quick descent instead, and continued down. The descent was extremely fast, since I was plowing down the equivalent of a sand dune. After perhaps fifteen minutes, yet another German climber appeared [enter stage left]; this one was somewhat better dressed than the first climber, but I still recommended getting up and down the peak as quickly as possible. The weather showed no sign of clearing. After shouting some instructions to him over the noise of the wind, he kept going up [exit stage right] and I jogged down.
Upon returning to the saddle between Ngauruhoe and Tongariro. I found a small group of people shivering over a camp stove. After advising them all of death and destruction if they continued (roundly ignored), I cruised back out to the trailhead, warning off numerous other parties traveling up to the saddle. The trail book hiking time for this peak is eight hours round trip from the trailhead. I found that four and a half hours was more accurate.
I drove back toward Auckland via Highway Four; its southern half, lined with towering poplar trees, cuts through rolling farmland similar to Vermont, and would be a fine bicycling area.
With some time to spare before my flight left, I drove halfway up the Coromandel Peninsula through barren hills covered with sheep. Low, dark clouds rippled overhead. Sitting in the car on a high promontory overlooking the churning gray ocean, lashed by curtains of rain, I wondered why the wildest weather always makes me feel satisfied. Lounging on a beach is a fretful activity, because surely there must be something better to do. Only when engulfed in a situation involving all my senses, such as plowing through high winds up a mountain, surrounded by crackling lightning, do I feel as though I am wholly alive. As the storm moved inland, I moved with it, not wanting to lose the feeling.
On the other side of the peninsula lay Auckland, and the airport. After driving 4,400 miles through New Zealand, it was time to go home.