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The mountains have faces

Part 3

See the face? Mt Cook from the Mueller range

Published: 06.06.19

Traffic. I’d almost forgotten what it was until approaching Auckland airport. NZ’s ex capital doesn’t have the best reputation - known to be big, boring, ugly and busy. I’d never been but I already despised it for making me unexpectedly late on my way to collect Maddy. 


I was excited to see her and to mix things up. Travelling solo I’d tend to retreat into the mountains on my bike, stay at free campsites and avoid crowded (tourist) areas. With her I was going to see more of the country, live a little less rough and do things I wouldn’t otherwise. I was also looking forward to having someone to share experiences with and make some of the decisions. 


Decision making is exhausting. I found the ongoing process of deciding where to go, where to stay that night and where to go after that stressful and tiring, so sharing this process wasn’t insignificant.

‘What we found wasn’t a climber, with mats on the ground and friends at hand, but a lone teenage boy who had just fallen off the 20+ foot face above onto his back. ’


Tongariro Alpine Crossing, Ruapehu. Peak season mid day is not the time to go if you don't like crowds.

Over the following weeks we journeyed up and down the North Island then over to the South Island, trying to take in as much of the country as possible within the short timeframe. More often than not we were exhausted from constantly being on the move and became increasingly irritable. 


It didn’t help that in the week before, around my vehicle dramas, freelance work and riding, I hadn’t contributed much of the in-depth planning necessary for such a fast paced trip. Nor that I kept losing things, was tight with money and had a tendency to march ahead up mountains. 


In her own words:


When someone asks me what my trip NZ was like the only reply I can easily give is something vague and essentially meaningless like ‘amazing’ or ‘great’ or ‘wonderful’, which obscures the fact that it was a lot of different things, some of which were positive and others that had me screaming at Milan halfway up a mountain. 


One low, appropriately underground, was the time I abandoned Milan in the Waipu Caves. He was very unhappy about this. I was also unhappy, because I’d fallen off some rocks into knee deep cave water and scraped an impressive amount of skin off my leg. 


Top left to bottom right: Nelson Lakes, free campsite near Mount Cook NP, Bealey Spur track, Devil's Punchbowl Falls, Castle Hill.

I watched blood well up and felt panic begin to rise, not mitigated by the concern of passing tourists who pointed out, somewhat unnecessarily, that I was bleeding. Since we’d just looped round a bend it wasn’t immediately obvious if we were on the same track we’d come in on, although this was quickly confirmed by an abandoned flip-flop. Seeing this, I lost all restraint and made a beeline for the exit. 


Ah, daylight! Still shaking, I rinsed my leg and examined it to find that none of the scratches were particularly deep, and it didn’t even look very impressive now I wasn’t covered in blood. When Milan didn’t emerge, I started feeling a bit guilty for overreacting and leaving him in a cave. He did eventually emerge but he wasn’t very happy with his underground experience. I got a good souvenir though: parallel scars that look like someone has attacked me with a fork. Thanks, New Zealand.


Coromandel Peninsula (top to bottom): Cathedral Cove, The Pinnacles.

The Pinnacles, Coromandel Peninsula, 21 December 2018

Stopping off at the visitor centre to ask about the conditions of the track, the ranger enthused about it and how it would be no problem for us, adding as an afterthought, ‘yeah, the top section’s a little bit steep, but you’ll be okay.’ 


When we reached the top section it became clear that ‘a little bit steep’ in NZ ranger terminology was ‘you will have to scramble or climb up fixed rungs on vertical rocky slabs if you want to make it to the top.’ I think the UK approach would simply have been a sign saying ‘Danger. No Entry’.


We came to the top at an ill-chosen moment and visibility was about five metres. A shame, given that minutes before we had been able to see all the way to the coast, across vast tree-covered hills and valleys. The wind was high, the rain was pouring and I was picturing all the slippery down-climbing ahead of us. But it was exhilarating to be there, weather and all.

Christmas Day, 2018

The day was a struggle from the start. After getting out of bed late and hurriedly packing and organising everything we later realised I had left our food and drink in the fridge. Our Christmas meal food. Our Christmas drink. 


With a national ban on alcohol sales on Christmas Day to reduce drink driving accidents, and with barely a dairy with open doors in sight I couldn’t simply stroll into a supermarket to fix this mistake, but still I tried, in vain. I was livid with myself. It really felt like I had ruined Christmas, our first away from family and on the other side of the world. (Maddy: I wasn’t really that bothered, my greater concern was the grinding noise that the car wheel started making after 3k on a gravel road and whether we were going to make it to our Air BnB that night!)


The weather added to the gloom denying us of any views of the beautiful Marlborough Sounds as the ferry approached Picton, and rain hammering against the windscreen on the supposedly scenic drive that followed. Tired and in low spirits we eventually reached our place for the night as the rain stopped, walked up the hill behind the house and barbecued the salmon and other fancy food I either hadn’t left behind or managed to replace on route. We still had baked camembert, not all was lost. (Also: the wheel turned out to be okay once it ejected a small piece of rock, so all was well.)


Top left to bottom right: The boy being air lifted from Castle Hill, Dunedin, Nelson Lakes.

Castle Hill, 29 December 2018

Located off Arthurs Pass, Castle Hill is a limestone boulder field named because of its resemblance to a collapsed castle. Being keen (albeit novice) climbers we were exited for a day of bouldering. 


But everything was against us that day.


The night before the wind picked up with gusts battering against the tent loud enough to deprive us of sleep, which stopped just in time for when we needed to leave. Far from the friction-laden gritstone we were accustomed to back home, the limestone boulders felt impossibly hard to climb at first.


After finally succeeding on a few easier problems we made friends with a couple of other climbers, both from the UK and residing in Christchurch. Then in the distance I saw someone take a huge fall.


At first I thought it might be okay, as the fall looked controlled and I presumed there were spotters to catch them and mats to cushion the fall. 


Still, that was a long way down.


As we approached to check the shrieks of pain made it clear all was not okay. What we found wasn’t a climber, with mats on the ground and friends at hand, but a lone teenage boy who had just fallen off the 20+ foot face above onto his back. 


While our new nurse friend looked after him the rest of us frantically scoured the area for his family, eventually finding them after a lot of running around. The air ambulance were on their way. The boy, who was an avid photographer, was exploring on the rocks when he slipped. 


As the helicopter approached the dad cracked jokes to lighten the mood. The Aussie family were at the start of their holiday and we learnt the boy was a promising musician, with entry exams to prestigious schools the following month. A broken wrist and back was sure to disrupt these plans.


After the three hour ordeal we were shattered and struggled to find climbing motivation. Whereas before I was keen to get up more routes and make the most of the day, I was now just appreciating not being on my way to hospital in a stretcher.


Mount Cook National Park.

Mount Cook National Park, 3 January 2019

Ever since Maddy pointed out the uncanny face on Aoraki/Mt Cook I felt a little uncomfortable in its presence. When the sky is clear in the park the highest mountain in NZ peers down at you with a disconcerting look, warning of the dangers of the mountains. With several hundred recorded deaths in the park, and nearly one third of those on that mountain, this seemed uncomfortably fitting. 


On our only full day in the park we packed in two hikes. The first was the easy but stunning Hooker Lake track ending at the foot of the Mt Cook glacier. This was the warm up to the Mueller Hut route on Mt Ollivier. The track really was straight up straight down with several hundred steep steps for the first part to the foot of the Mueller Range, followed by a scramble for a similar distance into heavy wind and over snow. 


Glaciers, rugged mountain tops, Mt Cook, the valley below - the views were sensational. I was keen to continue to the summit of Mt Ollivier but the heavy winds would have made the exposed ridge traverse to the top sketchy at best, so I vowed to return.


Waving goodbye, 7 January 2019

I felt down after she left. It felt like we were finally getting into the swing of things and working well as a team, and I regretted the totally unnecessary and silly fallouts we had along the way. There was also the drastic change from being around someone every minute of the day to suddenly not at all. 


During this trip I would constantly shift between periods of solitude and companionship. It was always the same. When I hung out with old or new friends it felt like a burden; an unproductive waste of time and a distraction from all the things I’d do otherwise. Then I’d get used to and enjoy their company, happy joking around and hanging out. It no longer mattered I wasn’t sessioning that track or climbing that mountain. Back on my own I felt down; unmotivated, secluded and missing the people I’d just been with. But after a couple of days I would be used to being on my own again and became solely focused on what I wanted to do and achieve. It was an exhausting emotional cycle I hadn’t experienced before, and perhaps one other solo travellers can relate.


By the time I was back at Auckland airport I was filled with incredible memories of places I had been and things that I had done, but with regret that things had been so challenging with Milan. We didn’t end on bad terms, but with four months before we were likely to see one another again, it was back from 100mph to 0.


Top left to bottom right: Lake Tekapo, Christchurch, Mount Cook from Mueller hut and from the road, Hokitika Gorge, Mueller Glacier.

It wouldn’t be an accurate account if I didn’t point out the difficulties of spending a very intense three weeks travelling together. We rarely spent more than one night in the same place and small annoyances get amplified in a tent or any enclosed space. 


Most days involved hiking or extended periods of activity which is what we both love and thrive on, but it inevitably ended up being exhausting, especially if we didn’t sleep well. Driving in NZ could be wonderful but it was frequently challenging and very tiring, and we covered a lot of ground in those three weeks. 


It’s also easy to underestimate the amount of energy it takes to plan and organise what you will be doing on any given day and the resentment that can evolve from an uneven distribution of mental labour, or a plan not working out particularly well. So, in all, we had our share of fractious car journeys and arguments on trails and, with no real down time, it was difficult to fully recover from them. But three weeks over, it was back to long distance relationship time.

On this occasion I wasn’t going to be totally alone as for the next three weeks I was staying with a mate, JP, from back home. When I arrived at his house I was both physically and emotionally exhausted so having a bed and a place where I could unwind and recover was bliss. It was also nice to see a friendly face, catch up, share NZ stories and find out what it was like living here. 


JP, who worked in a senior position at Christchurch Adventure Park, had a job for me. It was also time to dust off the Nomad and get back behind bars for the first time on the South Island.


Part 3 main stops:

  • Ruatangata West/Whangare

  • Waipoua Forest

  • Mangawhai

  • Cathedral Cove

  • Coromandel Forest Park

  • Rotorua

  • Lake Taupo

  • Ruapehu

  • Wellington

  • Nelson Lakes

  • Hokitika

  • Arthurs Pass

  • Castle Hill

  • Dunedin

  • Mount Cook National Park

  • Timaru

  • Christchurch 

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