I have taken to heart my own message of doing more of what I love, which includes tramping. So this week I took myself off for 3 nights in the back country in South Westland on the basis of an excellent forecast, a rare thing in a South Westland spring. I have rarely felt more in need of a complete tech break and huts with no reception are the ideal place for a tech break. Included in a tech break was a break from COVID-19 news – such news tends to be an oppressing weight at present (despite the government’s excited announcements about numbers of vaccines administered). I told Chris that if the South Island went into lockdown I did not want to know, I would deal with it when I returned. In retrospect, I should have told him to let me know if there was a lockdown, so I could escape from it for longer in the back country!
The Mataketake Hut is at the red star on the Mataketake Range in the picture below. It has views of the west coast, down past Haast, and views of the Southern Alps, which had lots of snow on thanks to the front that had just blown through. My trip included a night in Blowfly/Blue River Hut on the Moeraki River (a little in from the road) then a climb up the Mataketake Range to the Mataketake Hut with a little detour up Mt Clarke. The next day I walked southwest along the range to Mt Smith (how unimaginative a name, if you were called Smith, would you really need to get a mountain named after you?) and back, including a swim in Lake Dime because when you are surrounded by alpine tarns, a swim is what you do.
For safety I carried a Garmin inReach which tracked my position every 20 minutes, has an emergency button for real emergencies (hopefully never) and can send messages to phones or emails via satellite if one wants to communicate (which I didn’t). On the one hand it is great that we have technology that can keep us safer in the back country and therefore inspire us to do more. On the other hand, I did manage to go solo tramping without incident before such technology existed. When walking on my own I am certainly very mindful about how to navigate terrain without injuring myself.
Going into the backcountry on your own provides immense freedom from everyday everything. The backcountry allows you to focus in on immediate needs – where to walk, what to eat, what to wear, where to sleep. Most other things rapidly become irrelevant. I could feel myself shedding circling negative thoughts as I walked in through the bush. The first part of the walk follows the Paringa Cattle Track which was the main route from Paringa to Haast until the road was completed in 1965 (my parents drove through with me as a baby in their first car, a Morris 1000). It was a pretty miserable job for the roadmen who maintained the track in the damp West Coast bush.
By the time I made it onto the Mataketake Range and up Mt Clarke I had left the real world behind, or had I arrived in the real world? In that world where survival is intimately dependent on our minute by minute decisions and where we are surrounded by impersonal elements that can equally uplift or destroy us?
By the time I made it to the Mataketake Hut I was very glad to be there, after climbing the better part of 2000m over 16 kilometres. It is a very well constructed and attractively sited hut which is owned by the Backcountry Trust; its construction was funded by a bequest from outdoorsman and author Andy Dennis, who was active in protecting large areas of New Zealand landscape and vegetation. What a fantastic legacy to leave our country.
My first night and all my walking was on my own but this hut, which only opened in February, is already very popular. It filled up to its capacity of 8 the first night and housed 6 the second night. There is always such an interesting diversity of people in huts and, in COVID times, it is really nice for everyone to be residents of New Zealand. As interesting as offshore people are too, I find there to be a pretty strange tension when we build resources which mostly get used by people who don’t live here.
Having said everyone was a resident, more than half of them were not born in New Zealand – coming from the UK, the USA and France. There was a sheep shearer turned scientist now becoming a doctor, an aged-care worker, two civil engineers, a teacher turned school counsellor, an events manager in the process of becoming a clinical psychiatrist and someone who works in an outdoor shop. They work variously in Wanaka, Queenstown, Christchurch and Melbourne. The next night the hut was populated by a lovely family with 3 children based in Alexandra, the parents both being teachers at the high school there.
I find it fascinating how easy it is to feel like you integrate with people you meet in the mountains. When you are on your own it is particularly easy to accept and be accepted, I have found the same when travelling. I find it amusing how I almost forget that I am not part of the group I am talking with – I only met them a few hours ago and may well never see them again after the next morning. But it doesn’t matter and there is always something new to learn from them. One can have easy conversations because there will be no follow up, the only time is now.
On my walk to Mt Smith I was treated with views to Jackson’s Bay in the south and, upon turning around, I could see Mt Cook to the north. The trig on Mt Smith was as flattened as the trig had been on Mt Clarke – it looks like the Mataketake Range can be a severely windy place at times. An amusing aspect of my walk is how, when on my own off-track, I feel a bit like a horse departing from and returning to its stables. On the outward trip I have to encourage myself…only 4 ups and downs to get to Mt Smith, count them off one-by-one. Sometimes, I start to have errant thoughts about, what happens if I stick my foot in a hole and fall and knock myself out. I hope that what happens is that Chris notices I have remained in place on the online map for far too long a time and does something to initiate a rescue!). However, there is no point worrying so I use singing as an excellent method for distracting my brain. My singing is a lot better on the downhills than the uphills, but it works either way. On the return journey I somehow manage to get up a far greater head of speed and the ups and downs fly past.
After my three days of freedom in the mountains, I returned myself rapidly downhill and back to the car and then gradually reinserted myself into ‘normal’ life. It does feel like a bit of a shock, even after such a brief time away. Truth be told, I have not yet made it home to attack my chore list. Wanaka was happily en route, so I am catching up with local friends before heading back to Gibbston tomorrow. Now all I need to do is keep a permanent fluorescent post-it in my brain to keep doing such things, in order to remember what real life is about.