Sunday, March 2, 2014

New Zealand

Aaaah, New Zealand.

I always knew I would love New Zealand, without ever having set foot on this magical island.  In my mind, it's always been my kind of place.  A place where mountains meet ocean, where trails and beaches abound, where the mountains are huge, wild and rugged and the forests are lush, thick and unpenetrable.  I've always envisioned it as the type of place I could move - sight unseen.

I had an irresistible invitation from some like-minded friends:  Come for a visit and we'll show you the trails. I always say you have to take opportunities when you get them, so I decided to make this trip happen.  For one glorious month, I went on an honest-to-goodness-Leslie-trail-bender. My kind of holiday!  I also got to relax for the moments-in-between with some wonderful friends, who happen to live in a very beautiful place and have life figured out.  Like attracts like, yes?

I was based out of Nelson, which to my delight is surrounded by epic scenery, mountains, beaches and incredible trails.  We christened it the "top of the South" tour and with the help and company of my friends, I got to see 530 glorious kilometers of trails in this corner of the South Island.  I hiked and ran and explored to my hearts content.  530km!!  I saw a lot of spectacular trails.  I only saw a teeny-tiny corner of this country and it blew my mind - as I knew it would!

I'm not quite sure how to even write about this adventure, each hike, run and trip was an adventure in itself. I squeezed in a lot! Maybe I'll just start off with some photos and tell you about some of these amazing places.  Honestly, every single one of these trips could be a blog post in itself.


The top of the South is steep!  The Cradle Bay Walkway was my first hike/run for my pale Canadian Arse.  My first thought was:  "is everything this steep?!?"  It was a straight up march from the bay which strained and stretched every muscle in my legs. The mighty Leslie quads were quivering from the grade of descent.  I was putting on "the brakes" every stride.  And then there were things like tussocks to trip over.  Whoa.  Eyes opened.  The trail itself passed through a fascinating mix of land use:  from natural bush, to pasture and sheep grazing, to tree farms.  This is New Zealand.

Sheep!

 Eyes also opened to beautiful scenery!  We got great views of the ocean and my first taste of New Zealand bush - lush, think and sub-tropic with man-eating ferns.  And some bits were runnable! 


Next day, we jumped on a ferry and did a walk/run of a lovely 32km section of the Abel Tasman Coast track.  It was a beautiful day and I felt a little shell-shocked to be straight off the plane and running by the OCEAN!  WOW!  SUNSHINE!  T-SHIRTS!  PALM TREES!  My little heart damn near exploded with the joy. The Abel Tasman is super popular and is a non-stop tour of white sand beaches and turquoise seas.  It's the perfect running trail with it's easy rolling terrain, water access and gorgeous scenery. The most wonderful thing about the Abel Tasman track is that it is very accessible and achievable for most folks. You can hike short sections or long sections with the help of a water taxi.  And to my great surprise, there were treats on the trail!  Second breakfast?  Yes, please.












My running muscles were sore, so Michael and I set off on an adventure on the Dunn Mountain Trails.  You can access this trail network right from Nelson!  There are tons of purposefully built Mountain Bike trails here as well - it's a mecca for off-road adventure.


I got a taste of how quickly the weather can change - it went from a sweaty day to a blustery day very quickly.  From this vantage point I could see Michael and Tamara's office on the bay in Nelson!  They are smart people my friends and I think that moving to New Zealand was pretty much the Best Thing Ever.  They've created a great life for themselves. 



After my 3 day trail "warm-up" we decided to jump in with a multi-day adventure in the Richmond Ranges.  Michael pieced together an impressive section of trail that he had long wanted to complete - a 120 kilometer traverse through the mountains, ending right in Nelson.  He said it would have bragging rights if we pulled it off.

For part of our track, we hiked a notoriously challenging section of the Te Araroa trail.  Now that it's a month later and I can clear my head to the enormity of this trail, I can tell you it was a Monster.  In a good way.  This little 4 day trip re-defined what I would call a "trail" and forever changed my perspective on what is a rough, rugged and technical trail.  It made every mile of the PCT look like an easy, cruisy, super highway.  The trail went straight-the-fuck-up and straight-the-fuck-down.  It also featured rocks, roots and ankle swallowing tussocks.  Fortunately it also featured some epic ridge walking, crystal clear streams and thick lush green forests.  It also gave me a taste of the unpredictability of New Zealand weather.  There were a few days where my camera never came out, due to sideways rain and storm action.  Certainly some parts of the trail were easier than others, but all and all this one was physically taxing because of the ridiculously steep nature of most of the ups and downs.  I was quite shattered by the end of my 4 days, but happy and delighted simultaneously.

Here's what I had to say about it on Facebook:

"A good time was had traversing the Richmond Ranges for 4 days in the New Zealand bush. This is one of the toughest sections of the Te Araroa "trail" more of a marked "route". Weather, ruthlessly steep ups and downs, tussocks, slippery rocks, the luxury of huts instead of tents, un-penetrable New Zealand bush, high traverses, sharp pointy rocks (as my knees and elbows can attest) and the fine company of Michael made for a grand adventure! The most awesome part? We ended our 120km adventure on a trail that ended literally out the back door of the house. A fine ending to a most awesome adventure!"

The Richmond Ranges traverse was an amazing taste of New Zealand wilderness and also a great introduction to the joys of hut-to-hut travel.  What?  I don't need a tent?  Or a sleeping matt?  Amazing!  For a girl who likes to travel light, run and travel long distances the benefits and pleasures of enjoying a roof over your head is tremendous.  There are over 950 backcountry huts all over New Zealand!!  If I lived here, I could disappear for days, weeks, months on the trails and enjoy a roof over my head daily.  How awesome is that?  A 12 month pass is around $120 bucks. $120!!!!  What a deal, yo.

The wind and weather hammers these ridges.  On this day, we almost got blown off.  After the blowy-windy-storm we got hit hard with the REAL weather.  A sideways deluge which forced us to put on all of our layers of clothing and continue moving forward at a frantic pace to fend off hypothermia.  We were both borderline, but at the end of the day you get to light a fire in the comfort of a hut and dry out your clothes.  That's pretty sweet if you ask me.


By far the coolest thing about this trip was that we marched through the wilderness for 4 days and finished right in the city.  More specifically, we finished at the back door of Michael and Tamara's home.  The trail took us right to the back door of their hilltop home.  Amazing.

Finishing of our Epic near the Centre of New Zealand Walk right in Nelson
We were considerably smellier than most of the tourists taking in the view.


After a few days of downtime, I was chomping at the bit for more.  My body enjoyed a well deserved break, but my mind was anxiously wanting to do more and see more!  After much pondering over maps and destinations we plotted a new adventure.  The Heaphy Track was the start of my 6 day adventure and is a popular Great Walk.  Michael and I drove out to the trailhead and stayed the night at Brown's Hut before starting off early the next morning.  Michael decided to challenge himself with his own epic run along the Heaphy - an out and back for a cool 50 miles.  I decided that this would be the start of a longer adventure linking together a glorious horseshoe of 3 trails in Kahurangi National Park.  The Heaphy Track, the Wangapeka Track and the Leslie-Karamea Track are a great way to get a taste of this amazing region.  As a bonus, I was going to finish with an epic traverse across the ridges of Mount Arthur and the surrounding peaks.  I could hardly wait.

At Brown's Hut

The Heaphy Track was a crazy, ridiculously well maintained trail - almost a double track in places.  They iron out most of the rocks, roots and bumps with a much more manicured feel for trail design. The Department of Conservation heavily markets all of the Great Walks and as such they are loaded with great huts, immaculate trails and people.  From my perspective, these hikes are an accessible and achievable wilderness experience for the masses. From a trail runner's perspective they are sweet:  a perfectly graded trail to enjoy with great scenery, water access and huts along the way.  For a seasoned ultra-runner, many are achievable as a long day outing.  The well maintained trail allows you to run safely and move quickly. 

I did all 82km of the Heaphy Track in a day and a half!  I loved the diversity of this trail, from hilly green forest, to sprawling tussock grasslands, through thick semi-tropic coastal forest and then an incredible stretch of coastline and beach as a Grand Finalee.  Dreamy.  But it's not a hard trail, it was fun to walk fast and make miles easily and enjoyably.  I think it would make a great long run in a day.


Grasslands of the Heaphy

No Wet Feet






The descent down to the Heaphy River, was classic Kahurangi National Park.  The bush was wild and lush and thick green, with plants growing out of plants and water flowing everywhere.  Fern palms, lush and massive fanned the shady trail into an abyss of lush green New Zealand bush.
 



The Heaphy River

Coastal section of the Heaphy


From the trail's end, I got a lift into the town of Karamea where I lounged, stayed a night and did a quick resupply.  The next day, I happily headed out with a full pack into the great unknown of the Wangapeka and the Karamea river valley.  These trails were like Night and Day compared to the Heaphy Track.  I saw few people, the trails were rugged and the huts were empty.  I had the whole place to myself.  I loved the solitude and the wildness of the place.



On Day 3, I marched up this valley.  For 6 hours, I hiked/clawed/clambered up the valley of the Little Wanganui river through the thick forest.  It was a beautiful sunny day, but mostly I was hiking under the canopy of trees.  This photo shows the saddle where I was heading far off in the distance.  It was hot, sweaty and the trail was wet, muddy and tricky.  At the hut, I got to bunk with 3 Indian men from Figi who were cooking up a curry feast with fresh produce when I arrived.  Their packs were enormous, they were exhausted and it had taken them days to walk to this hut. They snored loudly and slept soundly and marveled out loud at me and my little pack. :)

Breaking out of treeline.



Speargrass




Little Wanganui Saddle


Stag Flats



On day 4, I set off early and made some miles to get to the junction of the Leslie-Karamea Track.  How could I resist the irresistible pull of the Leslie trail?  It was a trail that I just had to do.


The Karamea River valley was amazing - turquoise pool after pool of water of incredible clarity.  In the bottom of those pools were huge trout - I know this because I saw them!  Evidently, I had stumbled across a world-class-fly-fishing destination.  Most of the fisherman fly in to this remote region by helicopter to fish the Karamea and it's tributaries.  I only saw a handful of fisherman and a handful of hikers all day on Day 4.

The ubiquitous New Zealand Swinging Bridge


At Crow Hut, I enjoyed this view and had the hut all to myself!  All this for $5 bucks a night.



The reality of the Karamea Valley was that while the river was gorgeous, I spent a LOT of time marching through the forest with limited views.  Also the only other inhabitants of the valley were swarms of Canadian-hungry Sandflies.  Whenever I popped out of the green forest for a river view, they would find me.  It made swimming in these natural swim holes challenging!  Eventually, I gave up taking any clothing off and just jumped in clothes and all. The swimming was amazing, a quick dip does such wonders for the brain and body!




On day 5 when I finally arrived at the Karamea-Bend hut, I was in for a surprise.  I had timed it to roll in to the hut for a second breakfast and a quick break.  After the solitude of my prior day, I was more thans surprised to find the porch of the hut chocker-block-full of guns and fishing rods.  A LOT of guns!  Turns out the hut was full of 12 gorgeous New Zealand manly men, on a Stag Party.  They had hiked in the day before with a shit-ton of manly-man stuff and were prepping for a big day of huntin' and fishin'.  I was the only woman present and welcomed with a roar from the crowd, of which I could barely understand a thing they were saying even though we were speaking the same language.  They were all early 30's young fit, great looking outdoorsy guys.  As well as my Manly-Man breakfast candy, they fed me some coffee and oatmeal and peppered me with questions.  It was a fun way to start my day.

From there, I said farewell to the Karamea River Valley and started march up the Leslie River Valley.  Yes, the Leslie River.  On the Leslie Track. :)


It wasn't long before the trail turned sharply uphill away from the Leslie River to climb steeply uphill to the Mount Arthur Tablelands.  I loved this section of open grasslands and sweeping views to the mountains.  I knew I would be climbing those mountains the next day. 




Mount Arthur and the tablelands are a super popular day hiking area to explore, and I started to see large groups of people for the first time in the duration of my trip.  Through a couple of short conversations, I quickly figured out that it was a long weekend and pretty much every hut within walking distance was full.  Oopsy-daisy.   I got out my maps and eventually decided to head for a place called the Gridirons.  Along the way I passed by 3 different huts, all of which were full.  At the Gridirons, I got lucky and found a 3-person hut occupied by an older couple, Connie and Burt.  Score!  My relief was obvious, when I let out a loud cheer when they told me there was an extra bed.  Together, we shared an awesome dinner and then plotted a Most Excellent Adventure for me with the help of my maps and their local knowledge.



The Gridiron Hut was super cool and was built right into a rock cliff.  It was a tiny shelter, with only 3 beds, a stove and a super cool outdoor hanging bench which hung right off the cliff face. It wasn't the most luxurious of shelters, but it was a one-of-a-kind place to stay.


After a great night's sleep, in the coolest hut ever I set off for a high alpine circuit of the Mount Arthur area.  Thanks to the great advice from my new friends, I had a really incredible day.  The sun was out, I was above treeline roaming a top incredible ridges and I even bagged a few peaks.  My body was strong and humming on this day and I felt like the Super Hero version of myself!


At the top of Gordons Pyramid, I met up with Marcus a young German who was as giddy and happy as I was.  He snapped a few photos for me.  To my amazement, he kept up and together we blazed up the ridge directly behind me in this photo.  The Mount Arthur summit is popular and achievable for most folks, and the view is awesome.


After a few days of marching up the bottom of river valleys, it was so enjoyable to spend a day above treeline!  Ridges, mountains and views....aaaaaaah.  The kind of thing that makes my spirit sing.


Shortly after we bagged the summit of Mount Arthur, the clouds began to roll in.  I spent the rest of the day rambling above treeline and adventuring off trail on some sub-peaks.  After 6 glorious days, I was a happy girl.  I spontaneously decided to run out to the car park and hopefully get a lift back to the city.  The plan was for Michael to pick me up the next morning, but I was ready for a burger.  As it was a long weekend, the car park was packed and the first people I asked gave me a lift.  Kiwi's are good people.  I got them to drop me off at the pub instead of the house in Nelson. :)  After 6 days and over 200 kilometers, I was hungry and ready for some real food!  I got myself a Burger AND Fish and Chips.  Soooooo, good!!  It's the little pleasures in life.

The next day, Michael decided that I need to go running.  The sun was out and we couldn't help ourselves.  He was feeling fine from his 50 Mile run and I was feeling fine from my 200km, so why not?  We drove out to Nelson Lakes National Park, where we had a most excellent run around Lake Rotoiti.  It was a holiday Monday, the sun was out and I marveled that there was nobody there. 


It was a super runnable lakeside trail, with plenty of shade.  We needed it on this day, it was hot!  The great thing about this 25km loop was that you got constant views of the lake AND shade.  My legs felt like lead, but it was good to be running!

        
Hello.  This dock was out front of a hut!! I want to stay HERE.


Mmmmm, Ginger Beer.


Well.  The weather was good again so we decided on ANOTHER run.  This time, Tamara helped us with the long drive out to Marlborough Sound to run the scenic Queen Charlotte Track.  We cherry-picked a section that we thought would be scenic and Tamara was kind enough to pick us up at the other end.  Only 10 minutes in to the run, this is the view that we got:



WOW.  I took a gazillion photos, but essentially you just need ONE photo to get the flavor of Marlborough Sound.  It was beautiful.  And it all looked like this.  Our trail mostly followed the crest of the hill, so we pretty much got continuous views for 22km.  Here's some more of Michael's photos of our delightful day.



With all of this time spent on my feet, I noticed big improvement in my strength and especially, trail dexterity.  It's a funny thing coming from winter trails to summer trails.  Be that I was feeling strong and motivated, I decided to pick one last challenge to wind up my holiday.  I wanted challenge and I wanted scenery.  Michael had been telling me about the wonderous Travers-Sabine Circuit in Nelson Lakes National Park. We looked at the maps and pieced together a route with a bonus loop to Blue Lake, a bonus ascent up Mt. Cederic and a glorious ridge run across the Mount Robert ridge as a Grand-Finalee. I could hardly wait.

I started running on the shoreline of Lake Rotoiti and headed up the to the Travers River, the headwaters of Lake Rotoiti.  The river was incredible clear and I could see more huge trout lingering in the shady pools.  I loved the grassy flats of the Travers Valley and at the end of the valley big grey mountains beckoned

I wonder if I'm going there!  I thought.




I was excited when a guy came running by who appeared to be wearing the ultra-running uniform and was carrying an impossibly small pack.  I definitely overwhelmed him with my over-zealousness when I jumped on his heels and started running and chattering away.  Ryan was a local from Blenheim and was planning on a multi-day running adventure and heading my direction.  After he established that I wasn't a crazy woman, we ended up spending a fabulous day together in the sunshine.

From the river, the trail started to turn gradually uphill and eventually straight uphill to Travers Saddle.  From the lake, we had climbed from 630m to 1787m!  A nice enjoyable elevation gain.  It was a beautiful sweaty day.  Travers Saddle was amazing:  it was the first place in New Zealand that reminded me of the Rockies and even of the Italian Alps.  Great big sheer grey rock faces and point grey peaks jutted up in all directions.  It was a gorgeous high alpine pass, just like home.


From there, the trail plummeted back down to the Sabine River and the West Sabine Hut.  It was a ridiculously vertical descent, that demanded you pay attention or end up on your ass.  It was too steep to run and our quads were quivering in a good way.  I loaned Ryan a pole and we clambered down together.


We took a snack break at the hut, before climbing the trail up to Blue Lake where we would sleep for the night.  In the early evening and the waning daylight, we slogged through the most glorious scenery on our way to the Blue Lake Hut.It took us a further 2 hours, for a total of 12.5 hours on my feet!  I was excited to see Blue Lake, the clearest natural freshwater in the world.





Aaaaah.  Blue Lake.  But you can't bathe in it, because it's the Clearest Lake In the World.  I had to settle for a naked splash in the creek nearby.

At the hut, it was the usual:  everyone was flabbergasted at the distance we had traveled. There was an older couple from Alaska who wanted to see everything that was in my pack.  I love this little interactions and sharing some of the accumulated knowledge.

After a wicked good sleep, I was the first one to stealth out of the hut in the AM without waking the others.  I had a ridiculously big day ahead of me and needed to Giddy-Up.

It took me all morning to run the technical descent out on the Sabine River to Sabine Hut and the headwaters of Lake Rotoroa.  From there my plan was to take a break, eat some food and steady myself mentally for the massive 1,300m climb straight out of the hut.  After my break, just as I began my climb the sky opened up and started drizzling.  I was second guessing my decision to climb up Mount Cederic along an exposed ridgeline with the weather.  A sign warned me it would take 6 hours to reach the next hut.  

Fortunately, I was heavily motivated and I charged up and out of treeline very quickly.  While the weather prevented me from digging out my camera, I got glimpses of the incredible scenery that was surrounding me in all directions.  It was a stunning place to be, and despite the weather I was stoked beyond words to be on that mountain looking at those views.  It was one of those crazy moments where the wind was blasting, it was raining sideways and I needed to stay in motion because I was border-line hypothermic.   But, the VIEWS!  The scenery!  The experience!  Totally worth it.  Awesome.  Incredible.  Ridiculous.  Delightful. Fun in it's silliness.

I made it to Angelus Hut in 3 hours instead of 6, which was a good thing given that it was late in the day and I still had a long ways to go. The high alpine surroundings of Angelus Hut was so gorgeous, it's understandable why it's one of the top desinations in Nelson Lakes National Park. Angelus Hut was full of people on this night.  I would go back there to explore some more in a heartbeat. 





After a quick-stop-refuel-and-go at Angelus Hut, I headed up towards the incredible Mount Robert Ridge.  While browsing online, as well as these beautiful images of the area I also found this hilarious map of the Mount Cederic to Mount Robert Ridge epic:

'nuf said.


Right when I was staggering up the last stretch to reach the Ridge, Michael appeared out of nowhere on top of the mountain.  He had run up the other side to come and get me and run me to the "finish line" of my epic 2 day adventure.  His timing could not have been better, as I was feeling pretty shattered at that point.  I was so glad to see him!  In his pack he had my Hoka running shoes, so I could enjoy a change of footwear so we could run, skip and dance our way across this incredible ridge before descending back down to the car.  It was an awesome ending to the most epic 2 day adventure.  This run was crazy challenging, and crazy beautiful.  Definitely one of the highlights of my trip.

And just like that, it was over.

It was a Grand Finalee performance to my most amazing trip.  I was one exhausted, happy, content, relaxed girl.  Thanks to my friends Michael and Tamara Cartwright for the most amazing holiday any runner girl could ask for.  You guys Rock. 

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Jamie & Aileen said...

really good read. Glad you enjoyed visiting our place, Banff Girl.

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How could I not? New Zealand is Pardise!

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