How to escape the crowds and find some quiet in four of our busiest national parks. By Mark Watson
There was a palpable excitement among the ferry passengers as we disembarked at Oban’s rustic port, and a few pale faces. The uniqueness of our southernmost town is soon apparent; plump kereru perch on sagging powerlines and kaka screech as they glide overhead. It seems most passengers are heading in the same direction I am though and after a short drive the shuttle bus drops me at the end of one of Rakiura’s few roads, and the start of the tramping track.
Gravel crunches underfoot as I walk beneath the chain-link sculpture that marks the entrance to Rakiura National Park. I’m excited to be here, but not excited by the amount of people I seem to be sharing this place with. I chat with an Australian couple who look like occasional trampers; keen, but inexperienced with water bottles clipped to their packs and overtrousers on despite the warm temperatures and only intermittent drizzle. They’re walking the Rakiura Track, one of New Zealand’s Great Walks, while I’m heading further afield; along the North West Circuit to Christmas Village Hut and hopefully Mt Anglem, Rakiura’s remote and windswept highest point. While the ferry crew handed out sickbags to unfortunate passengers on the rough crossing, I clutched a railing at the stern of the boat and across the whitecaps watched Anglem’s gentle contours climb from sea level to a summit cloaked in dark grey clouds.
I walk on, passing students and the occasional family group. From one cloud of babble to the next. The crunch of gravel is distracting and it’s hard to feel engaged with where I am. A mountain runner approaches – sleek in lycra and his body-hugging pack. “Bonjour,” he calls.
Birds are few, and I doubt I’d hear them over the intermittent human distractions anyway. I’m impatient for some quiet; for a track that breaks my rhythm and makes me think.
The wide path carries me at a steady pace and I soon zone out and start to think about the irony of my situation. While we all go the hills – to walk and tramp – for different reasons perhaps, many of us seek to engage nature on its own terms, to appreciate the silence of a forest broken only by the rush of the wind in the trees or the call of a bellbird. Sometimes it proves hard to get away though. With greater development in recent years of front country tracks and infrastructure in our national parks and more people – both locals and tourists – in the hills, one has sometimes got to walk a bit further these days to find peace.
With only sandflies for company, I’ve finally left the crowds behind by the time I get to Bungaree Hut and I spend the last of the afternoon listening to the lap of the tide while I wait for the light to improve for some photography.
It’s a temporary solitude though, and I’m soon sharing the hut with two women from a Southland tramping club. They’re fit, fizzing and happy to be into their final couple of days of the North West Circuit, a classic Rakiura trip that takes most parties 8-12 days to complete. I’m conversationally reticent at first, but their enthusiasm and curiosity is infectious and soon we’re sharing stories and enjoying some classic Kiwi tramper camaraderie. After a while I break conversation and head out with my camera. The light’s not going off, but it’s good enough for some shooting and with the sunset all to myself, I pace the beach with my tripod looking for angles, noticing details and focussing on the beauty of the place. The upside of the sandflies is that they seem to keep everyone in the hut.
At 5.30am I’m up. The first glow of morning is warming the horizon and I muffle the snores of the other trampers with my stove. After a quick coffee I’m back on the beach – alone again and capturing the breaking dawn. By 6.30am I’m walking again, alone and enjoying the peace after the bustle of the hut. Rakiura’s legendary mud slows my pace a bit, and it’s a stunning contrast to pop out of the bush cover onto Murray Beach; its long stretch of sand curving away into the distance. The atmosphere is enhanced by bands of drizzle blowing across the distant ranges and the wind swishing the grass on the sand. I’m enjoying the desert island feel as I stride down my beach, the only footprints my own. My fantasy is short-lived though as a distant figure also makes footprints and ends my island dream. We pass with a hello, but the beach is not quite the same ahead – its surface broken by the other tramper’s feet.
Christmas Village Hut is in a beautiful location on the edge of a stony beach wrapped by bush. There’s no one around and I eat some lunch and stash my spare food there before heading back along the track to begin the 980m climb from sea level to the top of Mt Anglem.
The track climbs steadily, at first through lowland podocarp, then manuka and toitoi and finally into the leatherwood. A steady south westerly is sweeping the slopes as I reach the edge of an ancient cirque, one that now holds Mt Anglem’s small lake. I walk down to the lake outlet, fighting through leatherwood in places, and, in one of the tarn-pocked clearings, try to pitch my fly in the growing wind. The flapping nylon protests and I soon give up. It’s still dry, but I’ll be thankful of its shelter if it rains later. I decide I can always wrap myself up in it and tunnel into the leatherwood later and head to the summit to catch the evening light.
A brooding sky hovers over the summit of this southern island’s stark high point and I set up my tripod in the shelter of some ancient rocks, loving the expansive view with not a man made thing in sight. I’ve finally left people behind and there’s no one to talk to but myself.
Solitude’s easy to find really; you just have to get off the beaten track.
East Hooker Valley, Aoraki/Mt Cook National Park
Probably the most famous of our national parks, Aoraki/Mt Cook can get very busy in summer. While it’s not hard to find peace in the park in winter, summer time tourists can make the main tracks and viewpoints really busy. A short half-day walk (or a full day if you want to take a picnic) that will get you away from the crowds is the East Hooker Valley.
This track starts as for the main Hooker Valley walk, but at the site of the original second bridge, keep to the true left of the river and follow the Ball Pass route. It’s not marked, but is a good ground trail and once it flattens out gives good access to the river banks.
Further along are some terraces that will be spectacular with flowering Mt Cook buttercups if you are there in early summer. Great views of Aoraki can be had from here, without the formed tracks and bustle of other people that you will have on the other side of the river. It’s one of my favourite spots for photographing the south face of the mountain and is a wonderful spot to sit and watch the colours change as the sun sets.
Allow around 3-4 hours for a relaxed return trip and if staying out for the sunset, take a torch.
Mt Anglem, Rakiura National Park
The tracks of Rakiura’s stunning North West Circuit are peppered with trampers during peak season, but only a few make the detour to climb to the summit of 938m Mt Anglem – Rakiura’s highest point.
It’s well worth making the effort to get to: both for the solitude you’ll likely find on the summit and for the views it offers of the east coast and the island’s interior. The windswept summit area itself is dramatic and spectacular with outcrops of rock, small tarns and a pretty lake cradled on its eastern slopes. To the south-west sits the broad swampy Ruggedy Flat and beyond the craggy Ruggedy Mountains.
If it’s not too windy, overnighting on the summit or near the lake outlet is a good option and something few people do. On a clear night you’ll be able to see the distant lights of Bluff and appreciate that you have the place totally to yourself.
Christmas Village Hut can be reached in two days (or 12hr) from Oban and from there it’s 6-7hr return to the summit.
Waimakariri Col, Arthur’s Pass National Park
The Otira, Minga-Deception, Waimakariri and Crow Valleys can all get busy but it’s not too hard to get away from the crowds at Arthur’s Pass. One of my favourite spots for a sense of isolation only a day from the road is Waimakariri Falls Hut located at around 1300m on the western flanks of Mt Rolleston. The hut is situated just below Waimakariri Col, in the catchment that forms the headwaters of the mighty Waimakariri River, a Canterbury landmark. It’s a beautiful bouldery alpine basin right on the edge of the Main Divide.
Walking is a spectacular journey once you leave the river-bed bash of the lower Waimakariri Valley. After Carrington Hut, the track is basic and follows the river bed in places as it passes beneath the ramparts of Carrington Peak. Shortly before the hut, the narrow cascade of Waimakariri Falls is passed and beyond here the stream is crossed by swingbridge just as it emerges from a deep chasm right below the hut. It’s a place to appreciate the alpine landscape and the unrelenting force of nature.
From the hut your options are to return the same way, or exit over Waimakariri Col and the Rolleston River or via Mt Phillistine (both require basic transalpine skills).
Mt Ruapehu Summit Plateau, Tongaririo National Park
Ok, so you might not be totally alone here during the day, but you more than likely will be on an overnighter. Most commonly accessed from the Whakapapa, Turoa or Tukino roads, the top of the North Island is a pretty sublime place to hang out; summer or winter. Especially when you can watch the distant lights of towns twinkle far below.
The sunrises here are as spectacular as anywhere and it’s a very accessible place to come and feel ‘on top of it all’. In winter, when the chairlifts are cranking and the slopes are busy, it’s a liberating feeling to leave the crowds behind and head on up the slopes to the crater rim, where a cradle of volcanic sub peaks, a battleship grey lake and rime ice-coated cliffs await. It’s a couple of hours to the crater rim from either Turoa or Whakapapa, and those seeking a more remote experience can climb to the summit from the Tukino side. Climbing to the summit from the Blyth Hut area will also take you onto seldom trodden slopes and reveal a side of the mountain few see.