With careful planning and with a few days annual leave, a long expedition – 10 days plus – is not only possible, but potentially life-changing, says Tania Seward
Like many trampers, I considered myself something of a weekend warrior, accustomed to fitting in as much tramping as possible between 6pm Friday and 10pm Sunday. I had it down to a fine art: takeaways en route the first night, a gourmet dinner the second night, and finally a hot shower at home on Sunday night. It was a tried and tested formula that worked well, with the occasional long weekend thrown in for variety.
The problem with tried and tested formulas is they don’t handle change particularly well. When offered the opportunity to spend 11 days tramping between Otira near Arthur’s Pass and Windy Point on SH73, my first thought was a fervent ‘no’. However, the tramping guidebook sitting on my bookshelf mocked me. ‘Go,’ it said. ‘You’ve always said you wanted to do the Dusky Track and this will be good practice. Now get packing.’
Two weeks later we arrived at the track start in Otira, and it started raining. Twenty four hours later it still showed no sign of letting up and I knew, without even leaving the tent, that we wouldn’t be crossing the Otira River that day. Boiling water for yet another cup of tea, I inwardly cursed that guidebook and contemplated the ignominy of being tent-bound barely 500m from SH73. The temptation to hitch a ride to Arthur’s Pass for an espresso was overwhelming.
After two nights camped on the banks of the Otira, I’d had plenty of opportunity to reflect on one of the most important lessons of backcountry expeditions: when the river is too high to cross, all you can do is hurry up and wait (and make another pot of tea).
Luckily for us, time was something we had plenty of. Instead of doing the Harper Pass route in the recommended four to five days, we’d decided to take it slow, and allow 11 days for the journey. Short distances each day – as well as two rest days – ensured we had no trouble stretching the journey out. For trampers with dicky knees or reservations about multiple long days on the trot, stretching out a five or six day journey is an excellent progression to 10-day trips and longer.
As we gradually made our way towards Harper Pass, it dawned on me that I was relaxed, in a way that I hadn’t been for years. The simple act of walking each day had become the easiest thing in the world to do. I had been swept up in the rhythm of the backcountry. You rise to the sun, turn in when it gets dark, eat when you’re hungry and stop when you’re tired. It’s a rhythm governed not by metronomic time or human schedules, but by the natural world.
The weather has its own rhythm as well. New Zealand is subjected to a new pressure system every six to eight days, making it unlikely a long expedition would encounter only glorious sunshine. Having a mountain radio for weather information is useful, but so too is learning to read the clouds and the wind for signs of approaching gloom.
As your body clock adjusts, so too do your eyes and brain. Instead of being glued to a back-lit screen, your pupils scan the landscape as you walk. Hanging valleys, glaciated landscapes, remnant podocarp forest and stands of beech all come together like pieces of an ecological puzzle. My pocket-sized guidebooks on native birds and trees, purchased years earlier and never used, finally proved their worth.
If all that wasn’t enough, being in the hills for an extended period has a wonderful way of opening the conversational floodgates. No longer constrained by the reticence that accompanies a weekend trip with strangers, our group quickly discovered that no topic was sacred. Religion, politics, evolution and the phoenix-like qualities of Winston Peters were all dissected as we moved steadily eastwards.
As the trip wore on, I started doing something I hadn’t done in years: keeping a diary. Shaun Barnett had suggested this to me years ago as a way of aiding the memory when writing trip reports, which were often weeks or months after the event. Sitting in Camerons Hut by candlelight, jotting down what I’d seen and done felt like the most natural thing in the world. Long nights also provide excellent opportunities for reading long books, although carrying the 832-page The Luminaries would add significantly to your pack weight. Those wishing to tackle such a weighty tome should consider a Kindle.
To quote environmental philosopher John Muir: ‘Thousands of tired, nerve-shaken, over-civilised people are beginning to find out that going to the mountains is going home; that wildness is a necessity.’ It’s near on impossible to get wildness in a weekend. But head out for longer, and you might just get a taste of it.
North West Circuit, Stewart Island
With water taxi access, established huts and a well marked track, this loop track takes 9-11 days to complete.
Otira to Windy Point
This five-day route between Westland and Canterbury can be extended to 10 by incorporating side trips and a couple of rest days
North-South Track, Kaimai-Mamaku Forest Park
The North-South track takes around seven days to complete, but incorporating some track maintenance or pit days would easily make 10