Sunday, March 23, 2008

Lost in the woods

When was the last time you were on a long hike in the mountains and came across a babbling brook so clean and refreshing that it made your mouth water just looking at it? The sounds it makes creates a flavor on your tongue that rivals anything else you could possibly desire at that moment. Now imagine that you could actually kneel down and take a drink from this stream. Now imagine that you can do this at any stream you come across. Welcome to New Zealand. Having lived in a place where you never, ever, under no circumstances drink stream water and you carry a filter anywhere you go in the mountains. This came at a bit of a shock. I’ve encountered this a couple of times now. First on the farm, after forgetting my water bottle at the house and after a long day hiking in the hills, Tim and Cam kept drinking from the streams. Convinced that they had some kind of super power stomachs, I refused all dry mouthed day until Tim informed me that the house gets water from the same streams I was refusing to drink from. My next encounter with this was on a 4 day hike I went on in Nelson Lakes National Park. Everyone I met was drinking from the streams. Totally awestruck and a bit jealous after a few days of refusing, I finally gave in and was rewarded with the purest most refreshing water I’ve ever had the chance to gulp.

Once I left Tim’s farm, I took off super early on Saturday and headed for Nelson Lakes National Park. I stopped in Kaikoura to check the surf and ran into these Israeli brothers I’d met the week prior when living on the beach. There was no surf and after telling them about my plans for a few days of hiking in the mountains, one of them, Dave, was into it and asked if he could bum a ride with me. I had planned on doing some fly fishing in these famous lakes, however once I arrived, I soon learned that it was $20 a day for a license. Maybe another time. So Dave and I proceeded to plan a 4 day trek that would take us over a massive ridge up a mountain, down valleys and rivers and following a lake back to my poor little car 40 kilometers later. While planning this trek with help of the Department of Conservation office, I learned of a massive hut system built all over New Zealand by the government in every possible tramp (hike as we call them) over the entire country. I was totally amazed by this. From an environmental standpoint, this completely contained people in the backcountry and made less of an impact on the environment. From a hiker standpoint, this eliminated the need to carry tents and mats, making your packs less heavy. Best of both worlds. I thought this was the greatest idea ever…. Until my first night in one.

After our first day of hiking, Dave and I made it to this little hut, that was full of people, by around dinner time. After making some food, everyone went to bed on these massive benches called “bunks”. 8 people across on bottom and 8 people across on top. Through out the night, I learned that someone has hiked a baby up to this hut, I’m not sure how I didn’t see it when I first arrived, but it was there. All night long this baby cried. I’m pretty sure it didn’t bother anyone else, because the rest of the evening was a symphony of bodily functions that included but not limited to: snoring, farting with every possible pitch and decibel, scratching, tossing and the occasional sleep talk. Didn’t help that there were sand flies in the hut and I was convinced they were all on me for the whole night.

The next day was a tough one. We hiked up this ridge to the top of Mt. Robert. Spectacular views. Halfway through the hike my books started to fall apart. The soles on my boots came off and forced me to make every step with care as I had about 30 kilometers left to go over the next 3 days. Duct Tape would have fixed all my problems and I will never leave home without it again. The hike ended that day at an amazing place called the Angelus Hut. The most picturesque setting possible to build a hut. It was truly breathtaking. The Hut held 30 people or so and it was full. However, it was a peaceful night. Everyone was passed out before 9pm, I think due to the tough hike from the day. Dave and I stayed up that night chatting with Thomas, a traveler from Germany. We had some incredible conversation and I have learned to appreciate the different views of history, politics and travels that people from all over the world have. That night in the hut, as far in the wilderness as I could possibly get, I found myself sitting at a table drinking tea and gaining insight from the awesome company of an Israeli and a German. Both from very different worlds both with incredible histories. I was fascinated.

From the Angelus Hut, we took a trail called the Cascade track down the valley to one the massive lakes this park is named for. The track was rightfully named as it went straight down the mountain. At one point I really thought my knees were going to come out of their sockets. But they didn’t. My boots were only getting worse though. We ended up at this hut on the lake with a beautiful little dock surrounded by mountains. It was amazing to look back up at the peaks and think that I spent the past 3 days up there on top of those mountains. The hut sat at the mouth of a creek and it was full of big trout. I’m glad I didn’t carry it up the mountain, but I really wish I’d had my fly rod. The sunrise brought a layer of fog down from the mountains through the valley and onto the lake. Made for a very mystical, but spectacular morning.

The last day of the hike was hot, very hot. We walked along the lake for about 4 hours and finally made it to my car. I’m not sure my feet could have made it any further. I know my boots couldn’t have. After fixing a tube on my radiator that burst right before we left the car, we were on our way back down to the lake and into town. Our first stop was the beach. There was a dock and as soon as we stopped the car both of us made a mad sprint for the water. It was cold. But so refreshing. Having not showered in about a week, I ran back to my car, scrubbed myself with some soap and shampoo and ran off the dock once more. I jumped off the dock a few more times until the “Do fish for eels” sign caught my attention and creeped me out a bit. The rest of the day was spent drinking coffee at a shop and driving to Nelson where I was to meet Hamish and Grant for a sailboat adventure. Dave made the journey to Nelson with me but ended up hitchhiking back to Kaikoura the next day to meet back up with his brother. For dinner that night we ended up chilling on the beach with some cold beers and a hot pizza. It was super fun traveling with Dave for those 5 days or so and his company was greatly appreciated. Traveling does have a bitter sweet feeling to it at times though because I’m not sure if we ever will meet up again. My journey to the Nelson Lakes was beyond memorial on so many levels. I found it quite ironic that in Kaikoura where there was always people around, I felt totally alone, and then in Nelson Lakes, in the middle of nowhere, many days into the back country, I find myself surrounded by good people and friends having awesome conversations.
Here is the link to my Nelson Lakes Photos:
http://picasaweb.google.com/ryan.mceliece/NelsonLakesNationalPark

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