Tuesday, February 13, 2018

New Zealand Adventures, Part II: South-Island Hiking Trip

Our 6-day backcountry hike:  Introduction

The second stage of our New Zealand trip was a six-day backcountry hiking trip in the wilds of South Island.  Each day was varied and interesting in its own right, so this is going to be a series of posts, broken up by day.

If you are less interested in hiking preparations and specifics, feel free to jump ahead and skim through pictures. (Best pictures were from the first part of Day 3, and from Day 6)

Topo map showing our actual logged route using our Gaia GPS app. (Alternating red and purple represent different days of the hike: we started with the purple on the top right off Hwy6, and ended with the day-hike in red on the bottom left up to Lake Castalia.  A small section from the middle of day 1 is missing, due to an issue with the phone.)

[In general, while we certainly appreciated having our Gaia GPS app, we were definitely glad we had bought the hard-copy local topo maps at the Wanaka DOC center before heading out on the hike, as they ended up being more detailed and accurate. Gaia, for instance, didn't show all the hut locations, and didn't always show the accurate trail options.]

For a Google fly-through version, see the end of Day 7: Hike Conclusions.

Flying from Auckland and Getting Ready to Hike

We had great views from the plane of the Southern Alps as we flew from Auckland towards Queenstown for the second stage of our NZ adventure: our first-ever 6-day backcountry hiking traverse.  After a 2-hr bus-ride (with beautiful views of the stunning Kawarau river gorge), we arrived in Wanaka, a very scenic town perched on the edge of a lake and surrounded by mountains. While trudging up to our Airbnb in the afternoon heat, weighed down by our backpacks and all the extra luggage we had brought for the rest of the trip, we were amply reminded of the necessity of packing light on our actual six-day backcountry experience. After stopping by town again to pick up maps and backcountry hut passes, and to buy fuel and enjoy our last “town meal”, we stayed up late into the night, as we worked on organizing and packing the limited gear we would take on our first-ever, multi-day traverse-style hiking trip.

Prepping for a Backpacking Traverse

We have long been avid day-hikers, spending many of our Saturdays or Sundays in the mountains, driving several hours to some especially scenic part of the nearby Cascade Mountains, and then hiking up to 14 miles and some 3- or 4,000ft of elevation gain before heading home. We’ve also done a few longer trips, but because of our tendency to over-pack, we’ve generally found it challenging to carry our heavy 50+ lb packs longer than about half-a-day.  This past year, with our house mostly completed, we’ve been determined to transition to multi-day hiking. This took months of preparation, as we ordered new gear (hiking poles; waterproof jackets, pants, and gloves; lighter tent, sleeping pad, and cookware; the new-to-us emergency PLB that can send a satellite distress signal; etc.), and worked on training with heavier packs. Determined to get our packs under 40lbs (without sacrificing our basic comforts of warmth, sufficient tasty food, and spare chargers for MP3 players and phone navigators!), we finally resorted to cataloging a list of everything we wanted to carry in our backpacks – along with its weight in ounces – as we tried to eliminate anything we didn’t truly need. As this would be our first big multi-day trip, we did end up carrying extra things that we’ll hopefully be able to eliminate in the future, but we successfully managed to start out the following morning on our 6-day, 6-night adventure with each carrying a 38lb pack (including filled-to-the-brim full water bottles; in general, we carried about a liter of water apiece, and used a lightweight Sawyer water filter to fill up in convenient locations)

Why This Hike?

I had chosen this hike – which would lead us through the Young River Valley, over Gillespie Pass, and then through the Siberia and Wilkin River valleys – after reading online about the “spectacular” and “stunningly beautiful” views offered by this area of the Mount Aspiring National park.  And indeed it was!

Young Basin right before crossing Gillespie Pass: See Day 3

Gillespie Pass: See Day 3

Behind Lake Lucidus Hiking towards Lake Diana: See Day 6

For those interested in New Zealand hiking, New Zealand's Department of Conversation (DOC) provides awesome resources, including an incredibly well-organized online catalog of hiking trail descriptions. (See this link for info and brochure about the Gillespie Pass Circuit and various extension options.)

An aside:  why not Routeburn? 
Initially, I was drawn to the more well-known, world-renowned “Routeburn Track” (listed, for example, as one of the top 25 hikes in the world to put on your bucket list). But as we only started planning this trip in September, all the huts along this popular trail were already booked out. Ideally, we were also looking for a longer trail – more than just 2 or 3 days. As I looked more into NZ hiking, I learned that Routeburn is one of New Zealand’s 9 “Great Walks” – trails that are heavily promoted and maintained which do offer great scenery, but are also much more populated and tourist-filled, and aimed more at intermediate hikers with limited backcountry experience. The idea of a rugged, less populated trail appealed to us, and from my reading online, Gillespie Pass was supposed to offer even more spectacular scenery than Routeburn, though with a more rugged and challenging trail. I also loved the fact that there were so many trail possibilities in this area, with day-hike options (where we could take a break from our heavy packs), and longer extensions available that would let us adapt the hike to our abilities and available timing. Pre-bookings were needed for only one hut here, and there were even jet-boat and helicopter access-points available!

Ready to take the journey with us?  Proceed to Day 1: Blue Pools to Young River Campsite

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