Tramping is nowhere near as addictive as smoking, drinking or pizza. It would be easy to give up. It’s time consuming, hard work, uncomfortable and lacks glamour. There is no instant gratification and no showers. You have to invest in specialist gear which you’ll only use if something bad happens. You have to put up with crap weather, other people’s idiosyncrasies and, even worse, your own. The food is pretty average. I go tramping when I have failed to make other plans.
If you are sentenced to tramping put in a request to serve your time in Kahuranagi National Park. Our second largest national park often enjoys better weather than other backcountry areas and it contains such a wide variety of landscapes, flora and fauna plus history there is less risk of discomfort or boredom. Sam and I have done places together in Kahurangi. The Dragons Teeth, the Devils Dining Table (Thousand Acre Plateau), Mt Owen to name a few. On this our fourth trip, Sam has a gem tour organised. Fuelled up on caffeine and sticky buns, mosquito bites from our Friday night freedom camping temporarily forgotten, I’m cautiously optimistic about the chances of extracting enjoyment from the jaws of misery.
Caffeine and sugar remain in my bloodstream when we finally shoulder our packs. Sam has his yellow Mountain Mule, it looks awesome. Jessie is kitted out in full storm gear, he looks badass. Too badass for the warm day and four-wheel drive track that winds its way through mountain beech towards Sylvester Hut. The hut book confirms that Wellington Tramping and Mountaineering Club (WTMC) old boys Andrew McLellan, Stuart Palmer and John Thompson have passed through several hours earlier. They are going gem spotting as well.
Past Sylvester hut, as we spot our first gems – Lake Sylvester and her sister lake Little Sylvester, Sam discovers the soles of both his tramping boots are parting company. He and Jessie stop to effect repairs. When they do I inspect their handiwork, the boots are held together MacGyver style with wire and shoe laces. After poking round the culvert on the bigger lake, the first of several engineering experiments gone awry we will examine on the trip, we climb above Iron Lake to the main range. Discarding our packs for the scramble up Iron Hill. Loads of Kahurangi lakes, the peaks in Nelson Lakes National Park and the nearby Arthur Range jostle for attention.
At home on the range we munch lunch and salivate over the necklaces of glacial lakes curled below us. Nelson Lakes may have a couple of big lakes but they lack the charm and brilliance of the smaller lakes Kahurangi side. Blue and green jewels sparkle and glitter in the sunlight. These precious gems, the wide open alpine tops, the expansive sky coupled with the light breeze and bright sunshine spell a perfect afternoon.
Surveyor Sam loves route finding. He isn’t a bad teacher either, patiently sharing his knowledge and insights without being condescending. His passion is contagious. Jessie and I enthusiastically study the maps and figure out how they translate on the ground. The afternoon vanishes in a whirl of scrambling along stones and tussock ridgelines identifying lakes in the valleys below. The Diamond Lakes are sprinkled like hundreds and thousands in the tussock, further on lies dainty Lake Lillie. Bright, shiny perfectly proportioned Ruby Lake marks the afternoon’s critical decision point – to descend and collect water and swim or not? Bold, brassy Lockett Lake stretches languidly on the horizon soaking up the afternoon heat, relishing the attention.
We laugh at the vegetable sheep even as we squash them, we marvel at the random patches of white quartz. South Island edelweiss and carpet grass poke out of the rock jungle gyms. We discover Jessie loves a good scramble and he doesn’t get too hot because he is used to the high humidity and far warmer temperatures of the Philippines. We climb over rocks, around rocks, squeeze through gaps in rocks. We check and recheck our maps. We admire the cloud formations. We wonder about water. We sit for a bit and enjoy the warmth of the sun and the prickle of the tussock. We decide to forego swimming as we are reluctant to surrender our vantage point only to have to reclaim it. I’m grateful for my failure to make other plans.
Descending a scree slope a particularly intimidating piece of ridge line causes us to pause. Do we go up or traverse? We can’t wait to find out! On closer inspection the ridge is nowhere near as bad as we feared. Due to our late start we will not get all the way to Sam’s preferred campsite. Instead a group of small tarns near some alpine scrub is declared a good spot for pitching my tent and Sam and Jessie’s bivy bags. Huts are nice but in good weather, after a great day in the hills, nothing beats camping for peace, solitude, wildness and retaining an intimate connection with nature.
We wake to grey skies and wind worrying the clouds around like a sheep dog. Jessie mixes leftover salmon pasta and chocolate mint slice together for breakfast. As we head along the ground trails the cloud lowers obscuring the view and the rain sets in. Now we really pay attention to the route keeping warm by speeding across open tops with occasional forays into the bush. After about an hour we reach the campsite Sam and I have stayed at previously. Even clothed in wet, grey blankets it showcases all the attributes of a gem of a campsite – superb outlook, a good supply of firewood, plenty of flat grassy spaces for tents and a big tarn nearby.
From the campsite the track is well-formed up to the turn off that marks the sharp descent into the Cobb Valley and Fenella Hut. Fenella Hut plays an ugly sister to its Cinderella toilet which is perched near a cliff edge and features a stained glass window. The hut serves as a memorial to Fenella Druce one of four people from the Wanganui Tramping Club killed in a freak accident. The trampers were overnighting in a hut at Barron Saddle in Mt Cook National Park. Big winds blew the hut off its site into the Dobson valley while the unlucky inhabitants lay on their bunks trying to sleep. Mother Nature doesn’t care that a hut represents shelter in a storm.
The easy mediums and the WTMC old boys are also sheltering from the rain. Mike kindly makes me coffee. Sam and I join the card game and admire photos from the easy medium’s adventures. We are not exactly preserving the fit tramper mystique as we munch on chocolate and I accept a second espresso. Jessie however has set himself down on the stone floor in his full storm gear including tramping boots. His only concession to comfort is using the wooden rim of the fireplace as a pillow. His pack sits beside him untouched. He refuses all offers of chocolate and hot drinks. The WTMC old boys are lying in their sleeping bags on the mattress cushioned bunks munching on biscuits. They don’t say anything but I can tell they’re impressed.
By 1.30pm the skies have cleared. Our group and the Old Boys head for the Peel Range. We climb above the lake where the easy mediums spent Saturday afternoon swimming and head into the dracaphyllum forest. Our party is keen to climb Xenicus and Gibbs before heading round to Camp Lake. Ascending Xenicus turns out to be more adventurous than we anticipated. Packs are parked in order to make the rock climbing safer. Xenicus is only 1525m but a gem of a climb. Getting off is interesting. Once reunited with our packs we head for the more straightforward but taller Mt Gibbs. The Dragons Teeth puncture the horizon marking out the Douglas Range another spot rich with gems. A bit further on we have views of Island Lake, complete with the tiny island that inspires its name. We agree it’s the most attractive lake we have seen; it’s hard to cease ogling and commence walking.
The Peel Range offers good ground trails till the need for shelter causes us to abandon Camp Lake as a goal and drop to Round Lake for the night. The wind has picked up and although it is sunny it’s a good ten degrees colder than yesterday. We savour a relaxed evening of making our own brews, cooking, exploring and sitting watching the tussock shimmer and glow. It’s only when I notice I’m shivering far more than the tussock despite my down jacket that I determine it’s time to head tent side.
On our final morning an early departure sees us descend past Lake Cobb to the main valley allowing plenty of time for exploring Tent Camp and Chaffey’s Hut. It’s always fascinating to see what improvements DoC has made to these historic shelters. Jessie, always the dark horse, envisages concubines inhabiting them. The robins like them too. We speed up thinking we will fit in a quick swim before the long drive back to Picton. As we are dropping the Old Boys back at the Lake Sylvester car park we set the record for the number of trampers you can squeeze into a club van – 16. Meena gives Jessie a run for his money in the staunchness stakes by squeezing between the hand brake and the dash-board. More swimming at Pelorus Bridge. Tramping aye, just as well it isn’t addictive.