Land Down Under: Bibbulmun Track, Western Australia

My first multi-night hike took place in the Land Down Under. Here, the wilderness is perilous and dangers attack from above and below; poisonous creatures hide in every bush and the deadly sun beats down from overhead. Leading up to the hike I was anxious, my mind filled with doubts. However, my concerns had nothing to do with the dangers of the bush.

It’s true what they say about conquering fear; sheer exposure to the Australian wilderness had neutralised my perspective of it. Rewind one year and you’d find me sweating on a banana farm in humid North Queensland, a famously dangerous part of Australia. Venturing into the ocean? Choose your death: shark bite, crocodile death-roll or jellyfish sting. The farms, where it was considered a minor hazard to come face-to-face with a poisonous snake, weren’t much safer. The first time this happened I had removed the protective bag from a bunch of bananas to find a hissing Brown Snake, furious that its hideout had been cut down, transported across the farm and hung up on a moving conveyer belt. Frozen on the spot after being impatiently told to ‘throw it outside’, I watched as the manager seized the snake, lassoed it around his head and lobbed the furious creature back outside, into the path of other backpackers. I have long since learnt that few snakes are naturally aggressive, and will only attack if provoked. Unfortunately for hikers, being crushed by a hiking boot is considered provocative.

So my concerns had nothing to do with snakes and everything to do with the daunting task of carrying a full pack for five days. This would be my first overnight hike since my disastrous attempt to conquer the Colca Canyon in 2015. It was also my first time carrying a full pack. I liked to think I was a fitter, tougher and more determined version of myself in 2018, but there was only one way to find out.

Day One: Dwellingup to …?

Our journey began with the 106km car ride to Dwellingup. Fraser and I had decided on this remote section of the Bibbulmun Track to escape the bustle of Perth. In true Pathless Woods style, we arrived late to the head of the trail. Pausing only to capture our ‘before’ shot, we bashed straight into the bush.

The Bibbulmun Track is a well-traversed trail that runs over 1000km from Kalamunda to Albany. The track is divided into nine sections and we would tackle part of the ‘Dwellingup to Collie’ section as a there-and-back to Murray Campsite. Departing on a weekday, we hoped to encounter few people on our expedition.

Despite our late start, we were on track to arrive at Swamp Oak Campsite before dark… Until we came across a trail closure. I stood in my trainers, wearing a borrowed ill-fitting pack and watching uselessly as Fraser studied his GPS. I didn’t feel like much of a hiker. The detour took us down a gravel road with cars rolling past; this wasn’t the remote bush hike we had planned.

Arriving at the temporary campsite, we set up camp in the dark. We agreed to use only one headlamp to conserve battery. The inky blackness seemed to bear down upon me, pressing in on all sides. The beam of my headlamp swam alone in a sea of darkness, its feeble glimmer threatening to fade at any moment. It felt suffocating. I was determined not to direct the beam of light into the surroundings woods, terrified of what I might see. Though the headlamp barely lit up our surroundings, it did illuminate scores of scuttling spiders on the ground, exactly where we were laying our tent.

Suddenly, voices and screams pierced the darkness, followed by the sound of people running. I leapt up, certain we were going to be attacked. A group of teenagers crashed out of the bush, jumping on each other in the darkness and laughing raucously. Their teacher trailed behind. “Oh my god, who’s that?!” One boy cried, seeing Fraser illuminated by my headlamp. Comically, the teens were unable to see me or our campsite, only a creepy man in the woods. That shut them up.

Days Two and Three: Murray Campsite

Murrary campsite was everything I expected: remote, quiet, natural. The free huts along the Bibbulmun are basic but wonderful for the weary hiker. They consist of three walls, a roof, simple wooden bunks and rough wooden benches. Fraser and I planned to spend two nights and one day relaxing here, away from the bustle of Perth. It felt strange to sleep outside in an exposed shelter, especially in Australia, the home of kangaroos, crocodiles and snakes. My headlamp revealed more scuttling spiders on the ceiling above my bunk and I expected a kangaroo to bound inside at any moment.

An echidna we heard rustling in the bushes at camp
Fraser scaring the poor echidna for a good snap

It had been a tiring trek to make it here; a long ascent followed by a longer descent. By the second morning my body ached from the weight of my pack; my back and shoulders did not respond kindly to this foreign feeling. One hour into the trudge we reached the end of the detour. I rejoiced! We were back on track in the bush… But then, the trail turned sharply uphill. My whole body protested as I lugged my pack upwards; my lungs and legs burnt; my temper rose. I growled at Fraser which resulted in him bolting away to wait for me at the top. I made a mental note to check my temper when climbing uphill, or to prepare for a very lonely hike.

We had greatly anticipated our day relaxing in the bush. The campsite was situated beside the river and I envisaged a day spent frolicking in the water. We bounded down in the morning but stopped short; the water was shallow and murky, featuring a number of suspicious-looking logs. Allegedly, there are no crocodiles in this part of WA. However, allegedly, there are no saltwater crocodiles on the beaches of Broome. This proved untrue from personal experience… So we eyeballed the floating logs from afar.

Our ‘relaxing’ day now passed with waves of boredom. The catch of hiking is having to transport everything on your back; there was nowhere comfortable to sit and no stash of sugary treats. I hadn’t brought my book. Furthermore, having slept in and not exercised during the day, I found myself unable to sleep that night. It appears that ‘days off’ are incomplete without a fun source of water, a comfortable seat and a day mission. We did this much better at Lake Waikaremoana in New Zealand.

Days Four and Five: Murray Campsite to Dwellingup

Having completed several there-and-back missions, we now know they’re a little repetitive. The beauty of hiking is the unexpected; not knowing what’s around the next corner, sleeping in a different location each night and stumbling across jaw-dropping views. This is the source of the magic. It also helps not knowing when you have a back-breaking section ahead of you!

Over the last two days of the Bibbulmun, my body became increasingly sore. However, this was balanced out by the decreasing weight of my pack. We trundled back to the temporary campsite, and eventually back to the car. Discussing my latest read (Wild by Cheryl Strayed) and the challenge of hiking the Pacific Crest Trail (PCT) ourselves, we encountered another hiker – Jono Ride. He informed us he had just flown back to Australia after completing the PCT. My jaw dropped. We later discovered this hiker went on to complete the Bibbulmun Track in record time.

What Did I Learn From My First Multi-Day Hike?

Down days: When planning down days, ensure there is a fun source of water and somewhere comfortable to sit! Lake Waikaremoana is perfect for this.

There-and-back missions: These can be fun, but loops or one-way tracks are unbeatable!

Positive attitude: If you want to keep your hiking buddies, refrain from growling and remain upbeat even when the going gets tough. I continue to work on this during my hikes with Fraser…

Just another day covered in flies in Australia!

Ice Axes, Norse Gods and Kombucha: Aussie Goldfields to Kiwi Alps in 24hrs.

Catapulted from West Australia’s outback to a snowy ridge on New Zealand’s Southern Alps, lightening exploding overhead, blizzard buffeting my face; staring off into the pitch black night, I thought to myself, perhaps I might have overdone this one…

Let me rewind a day or so: I’m driving out from a mine site where I work in Western Australia, having just finished 12×13 hour days.

Cruising down the Binneringie Rd towards Widgiemooltha

As per my usual routine, I chuck on a podcast to upgrade the dead time spent driving into something beneficial. This time I go with the always faithful Brian Keane Podcast, where Irish legend Brian Keane introduces me to a new hero of mine: Ross Edgley.

Now if you’re unfamiliar with this bloke, I suggest you start with his youtube channel, however prepare yourself for the greatest surge of motivation you’ve ever felt. The guy ran a marathon pulling a car, ran 1000 miles in a month barefoot with a 50kg backpack, climbed a 10m rope 848 times in a row totalling the height of Mt Everest, completed an olympic triathlon carrying a 45kg tree on his back… and if all this wasn’t enough, he then went and swam around the entire UK, totalling 157 days in the water.

So here I am, kombucha bottle in one hand, steering wheel in the other, modern day hercules speaking to me out of the Hilux speakers, and I thought to myself – “Time to test my own limits out”. I knew Madi was going to be away this weekend – off visiting her Brother in Auckland – and thought, ‘here’s my opportunity to do something difficult’. Next thing I know, i’m pulled over on the side of the road looking up alpine huts featuring big gut busting accents; cue Brewster Hut. Tucked away on a spur high above Arthurs Pass, this little beauty seemed to fit the mould.

So whilst driving down a dusty outback road, I made the decision that no matter how tired I was after the trip back to NZ, I would get straight in the car and drag my body kicking and screaming up to that hut!

So on I went, speeding toward Kalgoorlie inspired by my new found hero, only stopping in at the Kambalda store to pick up kombucha and protein bars (the secret weapons of all millennials). Arriving at Kal, my spirits were high. I raced out to the plane to Melbourne, chomping at the bit to get back to the mountains.

My 5 star sleeping quarters at Melbourne Airport

Unfortunately, all of this newfound enthusiasm was crushed after a rough night sleeping on my Thermarest in a corridor of the Melbourne Airport. Struggling to drag myself to the departure terminal, I wearily boarded my plane to Queenstown, now wishing I had simply made the goal to get home and sleep for the rest of the week.

For the next 4 airborne hours my mind waged war on itself. 90% of the troops seemed to be focusing on locating excuses to get me out of this climb. The first formations delivered weak attacks that the opposing 10% were able to throw off without too many casualties; ‘It’s probably going to be really hard on your body since you’re so overtired’ or ‘It’ll be boring without Madi, you might aswell cruise at home and wait for her to get back’. Like the battle of thermophile my small legion of loyal neurons stood fast and true, laughing off these initial waves. Then all was quiet and I thought ‘ Yeap, i’m going to nail this’. However unbeknownst to me, the 90% were only regrouping.

I stared out the window into the stormy skies. Apparently, this was catalyst the 90% had been waiting for… They came in force, this time playing on my fear of the unknown. ‘What if there are avalanches, white outs, snow bridges? Look at those clouds… I don’t want to say it, but they look pretty ominous mate…’. These are the things I usually reassure Madi about after doing my research on the area. However, this time I knew each was a legitimate concern and this acceptance was all it took. My remaining 10% started dropping where they stood. The hot gates had been penetrated and we were surrounded. 10, 9, 8, 7, 6, 5, 4, 3, 2, 1….

However, in my greatest moment of doubt, I heard the last 1% muttering ‘If you want to be average, sure thing, just quit then’. This self-baiting frizzled to life an old Joe Rogan lesson about the importance of doing difficult things; especially when you don’t feel like it. At this I felt my enthusiasm returning. I decided that this tipping point was the perfect chance to test out my mental toughness, and so I doubled down on my promise to get to Brewster by nightfall.

I cranked the music high – well as high as the UE Boom would allow, as my own car doesn’t actually have a stereo… and drove straight for the Haast Pass. It was pleasantly sunny in Cromwell, however after checking the weather for the pass, I knew it was going to turn south by 18:00. Sure enough, by 13:30 grey clouds began to meander over the main divide and a few spots of rain tickled my nerves. Nope! I had said I’d do it and thats that… A few troops dropped…100, 99, 98….

Driving towards the main divide – Lake Hawea to the right.

I pulled up at Fantail Falls – the start of the trail. Bullets of rain now ricocheted off my Goretex; 97, 96, 95, 94…. Small shadows of doubt began to re-emerge but I swatted them away, still running high on the promise I had made to myself. With one last check of the map, I confirmed it would be an old fashioned West Coast gut-buster up the spur for over 1000 vertical meters.

So the time was 16:30 and I had >1000 vertical meters to climb through the snow before sunset at 1750. My numbers didn’t quite add up… 93, 92, 91, 90, 89. In a final warning, the sign at the base informed me what I was about to attempt should take 3 hours (presumably in good conditions). I resigned myself that my 80 minutes wouldn’t be enough, and biting down on my mouthpiece, I pushed onward regardless.

Now, as if to offer me one last escape or perhaps just to test my will power, there’s a river crossing right at the start of the track and I had gone and forgotten my Gaiters.

River Crossing at the start of the Brewster Track

Everybody who has hiked / climbed with me will attest that I’m one of those ridiculous people who wear gaiters no matter what the terrain; I’m never without my faithful pair of Stoney Creeks. That is, until I actually need them. Now I thought to myself, ‘I’ve got to get potentially wet boots before entering sub-freezing alpine conditions on a multi day adventure. This seems unwise… 88, 87, 86, 85, 84. A tiny little voice popped up with the age old aphorism – ‘perhaps this is a sign’.

I’ve always thought that when your inner voice proclaims this little diddy, it’s more than likely you are perceiving dangers that your ego is shielding you from. Therefore I’d typically listen. However, overpowered by the promise I’d made to myself, I soldiered on. Now whether it was a reward for conquering the seeds of doubt or whether I got lucky, I’ll never know but I did manage to cross without a drop entering my boots.

Fast-forward 1 hour of scrambling up a heavily forested spur and I’ve climbed roughly 500 vertical meters. The snow line long passed, a staircase of icy tree roots lay before me, stretching up into dark shadowy goblin forest.

My internal thoughts captured on the way up to Brewster Hut

Suddenly I’m rocked by an enormous explosion above my head and without thinking, I hit the deck. Lightening. 83, 82, 81, 80, 79, 78, 77. I stop and listen as Thor’s Anvil echos around the ghostly alpine amphitheatre. Too far up to turn back, too far to go to arrive safely, i’m stuck between my ego and mother nature. I ‘um-and-ah’ for what feels like an eternity, then encouraged by the lack of repeat strikes, I decide that my ego is too large to turn back and continue climbing into the now setting sun.

After 40 minutes of heavy breathing I finally reach the bushline and reluctantly don my crampons, gloves and ice axe. You’d think escaping the gloomy trees would feel liberating. However, now exposed to the elements, I feel my inner ape becoming apprehensive. 76, 75, 74, 73, 72, 71, 70.

Looking down into the abyss

The sun sets and with it so does my machismo. I’m now pulling myself up an icy ridge with a seemingly endless drop mere meters from where my footholds are. Without warning Thor batters down on his anvil once again and the mountains crackle to life. Thunder shakes the valleys, and in that moment I realise I’m the only one in these mountains tonight, 69, 68, 67, 65, 64.

With every bolt I stop and hit the snow in some foolish attempt to evade the laws of physics. Impossibly bright flashes are met with instantaneous explosions of thunder as the lightening sizzles directly overhead. My mind starts to race. I become acutely aware i’m wearing metal spikes on my boots and wielding a giant metal pole. My breathing quickens and my heart begins race. I start rushing; scrambling up the frozen slops. My foothold crumbles and I slip onto my stomach plunging the ice axe into the nearest hold 63, 62, 61, 60, 59.

Over the thumping of my heart I become aware that this is one of those moments where panic will get you killed. I force myself to slow down, resigning to the fact that the lightening is out of my control. I focus on myself and my mental state. Taking a few deep breaths I unclip my pack and take out my GPS to check the distance to the hut.

For some reason, absolutes like this always give me some sense of control. Only 250 vertical meters remaining. ‘You can do that’ I said to myself, with my own voice steadier than expected. 60, 61, 62, 63.

I shouldered my pack and dragged myself up another 100m through the blizzard, stopping only to grab this video to preserve this moment and force a slow down in my mind.

Thor continued beating his anvil and I continued to foolishly hit the deck. I knew only 50 vertical meters remained – perhaps the longest 50 of my life. I dragged my cramping limbs up the last ridge and onto the plateau. There it stood. My saving grace. Brewster Hut! A freezing wooden beacon withheld by the mountains. I plunged forward, dragging myself through the waste deep powder toward the hut. 64, 65, 66, 67, 68, 69, 70. Wrenching the door open I collapsed inside, an icy cocktail of fear and relief flooding my adrenaline-soaked clothes.

I wasted no time getting changed as it was still subzero inside the hut. Hanging my gear on the hooks in the foyer – where it promptly froze solid – I quickly set up my Jetboil and dove into a Backcountry Cuisine Roast Chicken.

The next day I awoke to another world, the dark nightmare of norse gods and frostbite replaced by a vast winter wonderland. Patches of blue sky deliver rays of light from the heavens and I feel calm for the first time since leaving the car. I knew I could get back down, knew it would be nothing after surviving last night and so I packed up my gear and trudged down the trail back to my seat warmers and Kombucha.

Brewster Hut the morning after.

As I sit here scribbling this wee tale by the fireplace in my ‘warm’ Cromwell flat, I’m unavoidably confronted by the strangeness of the comfort dichotomy. Whilst this entire trip was essentially a reenactment of Dante’s Inferno, and I really did fear for my life on the side of that mountain, I’ve never felt as alive as I did in those moments I thought were sure to be my last.

The First Chapter: Colca Canyon, Peru

“Hiking..? That’s just walking, right?”

The year was 2015. I was two years out of university. I knew nothing about fitness, mindfulness or nutrition. I’d spontaneously joined two friends on a month-long backpacking trip through South America. So far I had been chased by stray dogs, nearly drowned while trapped under a raft and swum in a lagoon full of carnivorous animals. In a nutshell, I’d had the time of my life.

White water rafting in Baños, Ecuador.
Exploring the Amazon Rainforest: Me (front left), Victoria (front right) and Ceri (second right)

Two friends feature in this post; Victoria is a long-term travel buddy, having roomed with me while travelling four Asian countries; Ceri was a new friend and a passionate and competitive runner. Having piggy-backed onto their trip, I intended to go-with-the-flow. So when Victoria and Ceri put forward the Colca Canyon hike…

…I immediately signed up. How hard could a hike be?

Optimistic view of the Colca Canyon before the ‘walk’.

Day One:

The day began at 2am. After sleeping in a noisy hostel dorm, I’d had only two hours sleep. The three of us piled into an ancient minivan for the journey to the canyon. There was no heating. Having packed only beach clothes for my South American adventure, I was soon shivering and feeling miserable. I hugged my tiny rucksack for warmth.

We arrived at a remote ‘cafe’ at 6am for breakfast. We had been informed that all meals were included for the duration of our trip, so I was disappointed when we were served two tiny bread buns with a side of jam. I was devastated when my bun cracked open, revealing a hollow centre, and crumbled onto my plate.

While investigating my crumbling breakfast, the cafe had filled with chattering hikers who were also taking on the canyon. They were wide awake and excited. A particularly animated group beside me exchanged stories and boasted loudly. I nearly dropped my bread roll when someone mentioned Everest…

…Maybe I was in over my head?

The friendliest section of trail, before the switchbacks.

It became apparent that I was in far, far above my head when we began our descent into the canyon. The switchbacks were steep and treacherous with three metre drop-offs between each section. Gravel slid beneath my trainers and I slipped forwards with every step; there was nothing to prevent me slipping right off the edge. For three torturous hours I descended, my calves and hamstrings burning with every step.

The result of the gravel on Victoria’s legs.

To add to my humiliation, I was unable to keep pace with my group. They soared down the canyon, leaving me to lumber along in their wake. This had the unfortunate side-effect of shortening my breaks; the moment I caught up to the group, our Peruvian guide would take off again. I barely had time to gulp some water down before repeating the cycle.

The bridge crossing the Colca River.

Once we crossed the Colca River, the leafy terrain undulated pleasantly. The burning backs of my legs rejoiced. Our guide pointed out a poisonous plant which was thriving in the area, warning us that the sap causes blindness. We were now three hours into the hike; the group had bonded and friends had dispersed, chatting happily with new hiking buddies. I desperately needed to use nature’s bathroom and Victoria and Ceri were involved in seperate conversations, far ahead. I said nothing and lagged behind, looking for a private bush. After locating one, I fell directly onto a poisonous, blinding plant.

By the time I popped, dishevelled, out of the bush there was nobody in sight. I hurried to catch up. Ten minutes passed, yet still I had not rejoined the group. I sped up. The trail became wilder and more tangled, fallen trees barring the path. Small houses now sprung up along the side of the trail; they appeared abandoned and I encountered only squealing pigs and barking dogs. Was this the way? The trail had not diverged, yet there was no sign of the group. I grew nervous, picturing the news story reporting my disappearance.

I turned back.

Fortunately, my group had noticed my absence and launched a search and rescue operation. I found them waiting by my private-yet-poisonous bush. I was relieved that I hadn’t been blinded, poisoned or kidnapped before finding the group again.

Day Two:

My body rose up and down, side-to-side with the motion of my transport. I was catching a ‘mule taxi’ out of the Colca Canyon. My mule ride had been the suggestion of our Peruvian guide. It would be a gruelling three hour ascent out of the canyon for those on foot. I couldn’t blame him, considering my performance the day before; my body had been broken by the seven hour hike through the canyon. We had then spent the night in basic accommodation without electricity or running water. Sleep-deprived and food-deprived, I seized the easy option.

Mule taxi

I had my reservations about the mule ride, unwilling to participate in animal cruelty. However, seeing the 150kg bag of carrots on the back of the mule in front of me absolved some of my guilt. Our mule guide, a normal-looking middle-aged man was impressively fit. He led us out of the canyon, keeping pace with the mules, and completed the ascent in a mere forty-five minutes!

I met Victoria and Ceri at the top. Competitive Ceri had smashed the ascent and was among the first to finish. We all laughed when Victoria admitted she’d caught a mule ride half-way up. It wasn’t so funny that she’d suffered an asthma attack; at least she’d made the effort to attempt it!

I couldn’t walk downhill for one whole week after the hike. It felt like my calves and hamstrings, burnt to the bone during the descent, were rebuilt from scratch. This was not convenient for walking around Cusco, a notoriously hilly part of Peru. However, my pride hurt more than my burning legs.

What possessed me to take up hiking as a hobby after this experience?

It would be three years before I’d take on a hike again. The shock and shame of catching a mule taxi catalysed the change needed in my life. Now I understand that the beauty of hiking is that it’s hard; the sense of achievement when pushing your body to its physical and mental limits can only be felt through difficult pursuits. In the words of my favourite podcaster, Brian Keane, building mental toughness and self-discipline is essential for happiness.

Fraser and I now hike and mountaineer around the world. I’m still the girl who struggled through the Colca Canyon, but I strive to better myself with every boot print that I make.

Check out my highlights from New Zealand and the USA!

The Land of Frosty Giants & Frolicking Deer: Steele Creek, Mt Aspiring.

I struggled to find information for this route online. It was all vague and frankly a little mysterious. Initially I stumbled across the track while looking for somewhere that didn’t have an insane amount of avalanche danger, whilst still providing a decent view and a bit of adrenaline. Somewhere in the back of my mind came the famous Greenstone / Caples loop track. I know the ground pretty well after doing a bit of hunting there in the past, so at first I was hesitant to go back, as I know the loop itself is a bit of a ‘stroll in the park’ terrain wise. However, I remembered how quickly that can change once you get off track and venture up above the bushline. So I started where anybody looking to hike in NZ should start; by looking at the doc brochure. It was all as I remembered, however when I looked at the attached topo map, I noticed a route crossing straight through the Ailsa Moutains that seperate the two valleys. All the brochure said was 8-10 hours ‘Steep and sparsely marked, this route is suitable for experienced trampers only.’ I thought “Perfect”.

So all of this went on around 9pm the night before walking in. When we woke up in the morning there was definitely a touch of apprehension in the air. Both of us knew that an alpine route with the current weather was a risky move, but we’re both stubborn as all hell, so neither of us confronted each other on our feelings. It was raining outside and when it wasn’t, ominous grey clouds billowed around the peaks near our home.

I secretly quadruple checked the 3 day satellite projections before convincing Madi, while actually convincing myself that the weather would hold out just long enough to allow us to get up over the saddle and cross the river at the bottom. After a bit of back and forth, we agreed ‘she’ll be right’ and hit the road.

Arriving at the Greenstone Carpark at 4pm, “Quintessential Madi & Fraser” I thought to myself. We quickly jumped out of the car and started the 11 km hike up into the mountains. It was immediately apparent that we had made the correct choice. Towering above us were the Ailsa Mountains, blanketed in the setting sun, as if a higher power was beckoning us forward; que Lord of the rings Montage.

Madison ogling at the Ailsa Moutains from the Caples River Flats

We flew through the 11 kms of valley, arriving at the Lower Caples Hut just after dark. Windows of the hut glowed dimly as we approached from the bush, ragged and sweaty after fighting to outpace the setting sun. We both looked at each other with a little bit of disappointment as one of the bonuses of a mid-winter hike is that you typically get the huts to yourself. It’s not that we’re antisocial, more that we felt like a nice little winter hideaway would be just what the doctor ordered after a hard couple of weeks slogging at work. Turns out it was a just one joker from Tasmania, who proved to be a nice hutmate, graciously suggesting we take the other dorm instead of awkwardly sharing.

After a tranquil sleep in our 700 loft bags – a recent gift from My Dad, the most generous man I know – we set off into the darkness. There is something about rising before the sun that makes me feel accomplished, and on a winters day when that sunrise occurs at 0815, it’s pretty easy to rise like a champion.

The sun begins its day by painting an outline of our target

So off we trekked, into the gloomy darkness we marched, frozen tussock crunching crisply under out boots. The surrounding mountains silhouetted against a brightening sky gave us reason for pause; just long enough to notice a herd of fallow deer frolicking on the riverflats.

Our first Fallow Deer encounter for the trip

After roughly 2.5 hours of meandering through the dawn, the GPS let me know our route was approaching and that this was the moment of either turn back or soldier on.

It begins…

Once we started, our stubbornness would make it difficult to turn back. It had all been a fairytale walk up the valley with every piece of nature glistening in winter glory. Now the only thing glistening was our skin as sweat poured down our exasperated faces. We had unwisely chosen to ignore the old adage of ‘Be bold, start cold’ and were soon paying the price. After several minutes of denial we set our packs down and began taking off everything from long-johns to down jackets in favour of more practical merino tee-shirts and sweat wicking leggings / trousers.

The first section of the climb was brutal; 600 vertical meters of unforgiving bush. Decaying beech leaves turned the track into a slip and slide, with our sanity saved only by the tangle of dendritic root staircases gifted to us by those same giants of the forest.

The Steele staircase to heaven

Whilst it took roughly 2.5 hours to battle upward through the bush, lifetimes of highs and lows ebbed and flowed between us. The roller coaster of emotions brought to mind one of my favourite Steven Rinella speeches. He talks about the difference between high and low grade fun, with low grade consisting of the all-too-familiar enjoyment associated with activities like rollercoasters or waterslides; essentially where you easily attain and experience a quick peak excitement and joy that is just as quickly forgotten. In the inverse, high grade fun is obtained through an activity that is almost unbearably difficult, with the ‘fun’ component a delayed gratification that is only realised upon completion; a sort of posthumous enjoyment, if you will.

Emerging from the bushline, we were dwarfed by the surrounding peaks. The dangerous beauty whipped at our senses; overwhelming yet enticing. This curious mixture of pulse-quickening fear and insatiable intrigue is – I believe – the reason people climb mountains at all. Once one foot fell successfully in front of the other in this new terrain, we knew we were capable of conquering this beast and both subconsciously smiled.

Madi celebrating another victory over the bushline

We pushed upwards through the sub-alpine tussock, careful to avoid the hyperdermic needles located at the end of each Spaniard Grass blade. Not so suddenly we were in a world of icicles and frozen waterfalls. Carefully minding our feet, we edged slowly upwards along the narrow goat track towards the saddle. Small snow bridges concealed iced sludge pools and after a few close calls, we both agreed that gaiters were a must.

The Ice Queen

And luckily we did, as the snow became thick I pulled out the old Ice Axe and tested our footing. We held off on crampons, only because the snow was thick and soft enough that we were able to keep footholds naturally. The anticipation built as we climbed higher, both conjuring up endless winter vistas in our minds. After another hour of speculation and sweat we emerged at the saddle, which did not disappoint. Im afraid showing you all a photograph would only dilute your future Steele Creek anticipation; I want you to feel what I felt when you climb that icey goat track.

The final ascent

We tossed down our bags and threw together a quick jetboil meal of noodles, peas and soup – a staple for any outdoorsperson. After 6 hours of arduous ascent, I can honestly say that those fine noodles tasted better than any overpriced gourmet meal in the city.

Slurping Noodles on the Saddle

As we slurped down our masterpiece Madi began noticing that her three-season boots were starting to fail under the harsh conditions; her toes beginning to freeze up with her fingers soon to follow. In my experience, even a good set of gloves struggle to warm a set of previously frozen digits, unless of course you get moving. So that’s exactly what we did. We hustled our way down into Steele Creek, fighting through dense sub-alpine shrubbery for one and a half hours before hitting the treeline. Safe to say, all that descent had warmed us both to the core and once back in the safety of the forest, we stripped back to the essentials.

Arriving at the Steele Creek Bush after a long descent

From there it was a easy bush-walk to the Steele Creek Hut – A true masterpiece of bushcraft, the hut was constructed out of raw beech tree trunks, wire mesh, old sacks and corrugated iron. As we gazed fondly at the signatures from past decades lining the walls, I found it interesting that those scribbles, once vandalism, now offer a treasured portal to the past, whom without, the hut would seem incomplete. I wonder where the line gets drawn between vandalism and historical artwork.

A wee tour inside the Steel Creek Hut

The next day we awoke raring to go, charging down the valley at 0600, we were rewarded by easily the most majestic display of plate tectonics I’ve ever seen. Once an old seabed of colourless shales and sandstones, now revivified by the terrestrial seasons to stand before us a towering giant of colour and wander.

Morning light awakens the Greenstone Valley

From the confluence, we ambled another 5 hours down the valley and back to our car. Only when we finally unshouldered our packs and collapsed into the car did the magnitude of our newly acquired ‘High Grade Fun’ begin to dawn on us.

Bear-Prints and Big-Walls: Yosemite National Park, USA

Fraser and I marvelled at the three thousand foot drop to the Yosemite Valley floor. We had battled through eight hours of sun and snow to be here, and it was worth every minute. We stood shoulder-to-shoulder staring at the most famous rock climbing valley in the world, the greatest big wall under our very boots.

We had hiked El Capitan!

We now faced our mistake. We hiked for eight hours to reach El Capitan, the half-way point of our mission. Sunset was in three hours. We steeled ourselves and stepped back into the woods, hoping we wouldn’t cross paths with a bear.

El Capitan soared high in our aspirations with the daring of Alex Honnold in the National Geographic documentary Free Solo. In 2017 he became the only person to climb El Capitan without ropes, a granite dome that towers three thousand feet above the valley floor of the Yosemite National Park. Fangirling, we wanted a taste of the adventure ourselves.

Sizing up the scale of our hike (El Capitan from the valley floor)

Our El Capitan adventure felt more like a multi-day hike. But it wasn’t. It was one… long… day hike.

13 hours long

50,000 steps long

5,000 calories long

The fast-changing terrain combined with the mental and physical demands on the body left us broken. It felt like we walked for days. We were on a rollercoaster of emotions: excitement, euphoria, fear, desperation… we experienced it all.

Fraser climbing the steps

We joined the crowd pounding the steps of the Yosemite Falls Trail at 08:30. It was dry and dusty in the morning sun. Shortly we stumbled upon the most striking waterfall I’ve ever seen; meltwater from the snow above plummeted over the side of the cliff, striking the rocks below. The sound was tremendous, rumbling like thunder overhead. Everyone stood united in awe.

Here the trail took on the appearance of a rainforest; large leaves shaded the path and the ground was littered with greenery. A steady spray cascaded down from the waterfall, cooling our sweaty bodies.

Fraser, who would continue working out during the apocalypse, bounded along in front of me. His energy knew no limits. I crawled along behind him, sweating, panting and groaning. It isn’t easy hiking with someone who possesses the hill fitness of a mountain goat.

We reached the fork at the top of the stairs after two and a half hours. The Yosemite Falls Trail twisted off to the right and the chattering crowd disappeared down it.

We stood alone on the edge of a dark, intimidating forest. Rocks and tree trunks littered the ground, barring our way. The sun failed to penetrate the thick tangle of undergrowth and a deep layer of snow blanketed the earth, covering the trail from view. 

In an instant our journey transformed from tropical paradise to wintry woods.

Trying to stick to the invisible trail

I took one step forwards. As my boot crunched onto the snow a sixth sense flared to life inside me, and I knew –

The forest was alive.

Every plant and animal felt our presence. Eyes were on us. Noses sniffed the air. Ears pricked. An odd, hushed silence accompanied our progress, muting the outside world. Our movements were marked by every snapped twig and every boot print. All the while my fears from California crept along behind us, latched onto me, like a bear-shaped shadow.

The forest put up a fight and it was an exhausting trudge. We were forced to use our GPS to navigate the inhospitable terrain; the path lay hidden beneath feet of snow and boot prints veered off in all directions.

My boots sank into the snow with every step and the slightest miscalculation sent us plummeting through hidden snow bridges. Fraser was the first victim.

Buried up to the waist!

We were challenged by the icy rivers fuelling the tremendous waterfalls below. The only way across was over rotting and slippery tree trunks. The slightest stumble would send us plunging into the waist-deep water below. It was vital that we kept our feet dry in the icy conditions to prevent frostbite. 

A balancing act

It was an uphill three-hour battle to Eagle Peak. The handful of people we encountered were walking in the opposite direction, back towards the valley floor. Most had made it no further than Eagle Peak. This was my first inkling that our plan may be too ambitious… but we hadn’t come all the way to the Yosemite to skip El Capitan!

By the time we stopped for lunch I was exhausted but we had a further 3km to hike to El Capitan. Our lot was sweetened by the stunning view of Half Dome and the Yosemite Valley from Eagle Peak.

Lunch with a view from Eagle Peak

Eight hours in we finally broke out of the woods. We ran the final two hundred metres to the top of El Capitan. We crept to the edge of the granite and peered over into three thousand feet of air.

Sliding towards the edge of El Capitan

The Yosemite Valley stretched out for miles below. Tourists bustled around like ants, navigating traffic jams in tiny toy cars. The Merced River meandered through the park fuelled by cascading waterfalls from above. It felt like we were perched in the heavens, looking down on the earth.

The final anchor-point for climbers was bolted to the granite right next to us. I tried to imagine what it must have been like for a ropeless Alex Honnold to look down and know there were only fingernails between him and the valley floor.

We were ecstatic.

The view of Half Dome from El Capitan
Posing next to the US Geological Survey

It was now time to face our mistake and hike back in the dark. We were breaking all the rules. I thought of all the advice given by the Rangers –

“DO NOT HIKE AT DUSK…”

“DO NOT HIKE IN LESS THAN THREE…”

The feeling of dusk was already present as we stepped back into the woods. The darkness crept in around us, drawing us tight into its grip, encircling its prey. As the gloom thickened, shapes and objects became hard to distinguish. I kept my eyes down and followed the footprints in the snow… I prayed not to see a bear print.

Heading back towards the woods

Following advice from the Rangers, we made as much noise as possible and frequently yelled “Hey, bear!” to avoid startling any grizzlies. I wasn’t entirely comfortable with this plan as black bears have been known to actively hunt humans so I couldn’t shake the feeling we were inviting them to dinner.

By the time we left El Capitan we were the only people in the woods. The last group we had seen had been heading back to the valley two hours before. There was nobody to help.

It was at this moment that I remembered this monster from Big Bear.

I felt a familiar sensation in my chest. My throat constricted and my breath came in gasps. My hands dropped to my shaking knees and Fraser turned, recognising the symptoms of my panic attack… I wouldn’t have made it back without Fraser. He navigated our way back through the darkening woods, his encouragement and calm nerve keeping me together.

We agreed to speed up.

It was an eye-opening experience. The human concerns I’d brought into the woods were dissolved and replaced with a primal awareness. There was no halting or decision-making. I simply pounded after Fraser, walking directly in his boot prints to avoid hidden snow bridges. I navigated the terrain with confidence. We halted only to check the GPS and navigate the invisible path.

Fraser suddenly increased his shouts of “Hey, bear!” I felt too frantic to question this and didn’t find out the terrifying reason until later.

Halfway back we came to the icy rivers.

Without hesitation we agreed to beeline across them. Fraser didn’t need persuading; he was keen to test out the waterproofing on his new boots. We splashed our way through the rivers, avoiding only those that were waist-deep. Icy water gushed into my boots but I barely noticed.

We staggered back to the top of the steps at 19:50. It had taken us a mere two-and-a-half hours from El Capitan. The stairs, which had been buzzing with tourists, now appeared empty. But suddenly we caught up to a group of people – actual people! – coming down from another trail who looked, like us, as though they’d bitten off more than they could chew. 

Relief flooded my body and I dropped instantly from high alert to low alert. We were safe. I wasn’t prepared for what happened next; waves of nausea crashed over me and my legs shook violently.

Was this hypothermia? 

Was I going into shock?

Nope, it was an adrenaline dump.

It was not until this point that I realised I was in bad shape. The adrenaline rush I had experienced in the woods had pushed my body beyond its usual limits. I had been drained of all resources. My legs buckled under me and I was weak with hunger and thirst.

I dragged my protesting body down step by step, fighting the urge to be sick or collapse, until we reached the camp.

We emerged from the black woods wild-eyed, our bodies broken. The campers cast strange looks at us as we staggered through; we were dripping wet and caked in mud and sweat. I limped along, my boots squelching, looking like I’d seen a ghost.

It was only now that Fraser admitted he’d seen a large bear print ahead of us in the woods.

Ruapehu, Summit New Zealand’s highest volcano – Crater Lake DIY Adventure Guide

The following describes our own route up to Ruapehu’s Crater lake, dome ridge summit. It is an unassisted route (requires no chairlifts) and allows for the current renovations to the Whakapapa ski-field, which at the time of trekking blocked the more common route – we completed this route in summer and can therefore only speak to that season. Good luck.

Transport

This is fairly straight forward. You are able to park your own vehicle for the day at the Whakapapa ski-field and walk to the start of my mapped route.

What clothing/ footwear will I need?

Even in the height of summer, summit temperatures will likely be in the low single digits, if not negative, so don’t be fooled by blue skies at the base. There’s also a really reliable thermal wind to deal with, however I’ll get into further down the post.

Footwear

I wore a pair of Lowa Tibet GTX boots and strongly advise something with similar rigidity and support. These boots have a full 5mm PU shank, which really came into its own on the loose tephra that blankets the majority of the climb. Madison once again took it on in a lighter pair of shankless boots and didn’t suffer for it, so it can be done, however if any climb benefited from a shank it was this one.

Lower body

No river crossings required, therefore shorts and a good pair of gaiters will suffice.

Upper body

Summits are unique in that they require almost two completely opposing upper outfits. You’re going to want something extremely lightweight and breathable and with a decent UPF rating on your way up. As the more you sweat, the more water you’ll have to bring to compensate, and extra water means extra pack weight, and nobody wants that. However once you arrive at the summit, you’ll want to be able to shed that sweaty shirt, wipe down with a micro fibre towel, and don something a little warmer; perhaps a merino by icebreaker, along with a down mid layer (800 recommended), and a gtx outershell just to shed that howling thermal wind. A beanie will also keep you feeling comfortable in these potentially changeable conditions.

What food should I bring?

I burnt 2964 calories over the 9 hour mission. Whenever a day trip gets anything near or above 3000 cals, I suggest you bring at least 2000 worth of food to push you through, then compensate for the deficit upon descent. A couple OSM bars, some crackers with plenty of peanut butter and a bit of scroggin should set you right. However, if you’re not stressed on weight, then bring a back country cuisine and munch it overlooking the crater lake for a truly satisfying experience.

Water

There are a few options for insitu water sources: snow (requires melting) or glacial run off on your way up to the summit. We are unsure about quality of these sources; however there are various hydrothermal vents near the top, each spewing sulfuric material out onto the mountainside. Whilst this is a neat feature to behold, it is often indicative of the presence of metallic sulfides and thus a very low pH is likely. We therefore advise you to bring your own. I got away with bringing 3L, as our food didn’t require hydrating.

Maps and GPX files

Recorded via Garmin Fenix 5x – ultra trac enabled

Click here to download the gpx file.

I struggled to find a route posted anywhere else, however a verbal description can be found here.

How physically difficult is it?

At the time of measuring this I possessed a moderate-high level of fitness. It is a difficult day walk with approximately 1100 vertical meters worth of climbing. As such we only advise people to undertake it if they possess good leg strength and are comfortable spending 5+ hours at an elevated heart rate.

ruapehu
Heart Rate Vs Elevation Plot

Average heart rate: 113 bpm Max heart rate 179 bpm

Time spent in heart rate zones 1-5

How technical will it be?

In summer the route posted here is difficult, yet non-technical. It requires no specialist gear. However be advised that if you’d like to make it to the spires jutting above the crater lake, crampons and an ice axe will be required, even in the height of summer. We are planning a winter accent this year so stay tuned for the upcoming ice guide.

Warning: Thermal wind (Anabatic)

You might be wondering what on earth a thermal wind is. Well in a nutshell; as the sun heats up the mountain face throughout the day, the now warm face begins warming the air surrounding it. This air warming is most pronounced at the top, where the air was initially the coldest. This newly warm air quickly becomes increasingly buoyant and begins to rise leaving a low pressure zone at the summit. This low pressure zone draws higher pressure air up the sides of the mountain. At Ruapehu, this can often bring cloud racing up the side of the once clear mountain. Therefore, be warned that starting out with blue skies does not guarantee visibility will remain clear all day. Taking a GPS device with our route pre-programmed in will allow you to backtrack on yourself in the event you experience a white-out.

Anabatic wind bringing cloud up the flank of Ruapehu

Enjoy the battle up to the summit and be sure to comment if you found this useful,

PW,

Edge of the World: Grand Canyon National Park, USA

The trail opened with a breathtaking view of the canyon. We stood on the edge of the world and gaped down. It was the stuff of magic, forged by the forces of earth and sky. Astounding from every angle, the layers of rock tell the story of time, the cut of the walls shaped by the rush of water from the past.

  • Location: Grand Canyon National Park, Arizona, USA
  • Length: 42.6km
  • Gear epiphany: Camelbaks
  • Best moment: Sunset at Plateau Point
  • Blunder of the trip: Not using the tent fly

The Grand Canyon is a perilous place for people. The walls of the Backcountry Office are plastered with warnings, statistics and fatalities. Many dangers are climatic due to the exposed nature of the canyon; the sun beats down over areas without shade or water; the Colorado River rages its way through valleys, its strong currents and icy temperatures claiming lives. 

Other dangers are posed by the creatures of the canyon. The scorched earth may appear uninhabitable but the ground is crawling with poisonous spiders, snakes and scorpions. Worse yet are mountain lions. 

After emerging from our hike, I stood mud-splattered in the Backcountry Office studying the map on the wall. I was shocked to discover that our journey, an immersive multi-day adventure, covered no more than a corner of the canyon.

We had first strolled into the Backcountry Office on Friday afternoon and were lucky to secure a permit for the next day. People book months in advance to hike the canyon but, fortunately, 15% are reserved for walk-ins. 

The ranger was friendly and knowledgeable. He advised us on which hike to do and what to expect. He also informed us of the dry, harsh conditions we would encounter. Our hike would begin at the South Kaibab Trailhead and end at the Bright Angel Trailhead. It would take us three days and two nights. We secretly believed we could hike it in one day but were happy to spend time enjoying the sights of the canyon. We didn’t realise how ambitious this was at the time!

Day 1 – South Kaibab Trailhead to Bright Angel Campground

It was here that the trail opened with a spectacular view. It was unexpected. More than that, it was surreal; views of this magnitude are reserved for mountain summits, gifted for the bold after an arduous climb.

But this is the source of the magic; astounding from every angle, it’s possible to get a taste of the canyon from a single snapshot.

Our “before shot” at the viewpoint

The first day of the hike was the driest section of trail. There was no water source, man-made or natural, and we’d been advised to carry four litres of water per person. We had invested in two Camelbaks. These water containers sit comfortably in your pack with a drinking tube attached. I thought they were great.

Fraser and I stopped for a morning tea break on an overhanging ledge which dropped down into the beautiful abyss. We joked that when rangers found our dehydrated bodies they would exclaim:

“It appears they used all their drinking water for tea and coffee!”

Brew with a view

It was a downhill trudge all day. The trail descended 1350 vertical metres to the Colorado River. The path was buzzing with chattering day hikers but the further we ventured the quieter things became.

I made the mistake of asking Fraser to tighten my boots; my toes were rubbing painfully with every step. The tight laces alleviated this pain, however, by the time I took my boots off at camp the top of my toes and feet were numb! The feeling still hasn’t returned to them…

The descent was strenuous on the body. My neck ached from staring downwards and my knees creaked with every step. Stairs were particularly brutal and the bouncing pack ached on my back. By the time we reached Bright Angel I was exhausted.

We finally reached Boat Beach along the Colorado River and couldn’t wait to get into the water. The river had been drawing tantalisingly closer as we trudged in the sun. Groups of hikers were casually dipping in and we ran over eagerly…

…It was FREEZING. I couldn’t believe people weren’t reacting to the temperature. I’d seen warnings for the fast current and icy water but believed it would be refreshing after a thirty degree day. I was wrong. We took a brief plunge and returned shivering to Bright Angel campsite.

Enjoying a well deserved rest at Bright Angel

Day 2 – Bright Angel Campground to Indian Garden Campground

A set of stairs loomed out of nowhere. They towered above us steep, sandy and uneven. This would be a harder ascent than the Devil’s Staircase. 

We hadn’t known what to expect from the second day. We only knew we would climb four hundred vertical metres to reach Indian Garden. The ranger had informed us that there was no need for an early start as we would walk along the creek…

I don’t think he had 10:30 in mind!

The calm before the stair storm

It took 2.5 hours to ascend 470 vertical metres. We completed the climb in the burning midday sun. By the time I reached the campsite my body felt broken.

I have to mention the trail runners here. These were people running the South Kaibab and Bright Angel trails in one day – the route that took us three days to hike. Most of these people were women and I found them incredibly inspirational. The runners flew past me on the stairs and I didn’t see them again.

That evening we joined other campers for the sunset trip to Plateau Point. This viewpoint is perched precariously above the Colorado River. Steep drop-offs on all sides plummet down to the rapids below. Condors glided all around us, floating up and down in the afternoon thermals.

We could hear only the call of the condors and the rush of the rapids.

The serenity of the scene contrasted with the raging river and deadly animals of the canyon. Somehow, the perilous place became peaceful, the vastness of the canyon muting the dangers within. 

The walk back to camp was nerve-wracking. Fraser and I walked alone as the sun set. The wind howled and whipped the sand into a frenzy around our feet. My neck prickled and my mind was on mountain lions. But it wasn’t mountain lions we had to fear; we stumbled across a rattle snake on the path, coiled up and rattling. Fraser was brave enough to capture a photo.

After our hot ascent to Indian Garden we wanted an early start to beat the heat but our slumber was broken at 3am by unexpected rain. I was surprised to see rain in the canyon at all and we jumped up to attach the waterproof fly. Headlamps flashed all around us as everyone else had made the same mistake.

Day 3 – Indian Garden back to civilisation

We rose at 06:30. Outside the tent wind howled through the trees and rain hammered down. Reluctantly emerging, we found the campground deserted. I couldn’t believe it.

It would be a long morning of climbing; no flats, no downhills, no rest. 

I went ahead of Fraser. It was a beautiful solitary morning. The rain had cleared and this section of trail was surrounded by lush greenery and spectacular views of the canyon walls. I didn’t encounter another person for an hour. It was wonderful.

Before long the canyon wall stood threateningly before me, barring my way, the trees mere specks at the top.

There was nowhere to go but up.

A daunting view of the upcoming climb

Halfway up I entered the realm of day hikers; the trail was busy with packless people sauntering up and down. As a ‘backpacker’ I was in the minority. I must’ve looked a sight; I had worn the same filthy clothes for three days, I was carrying a pack so large I could curl up and fit my body inside it and I had gadgets hanging from every strap and pocket. I looked like a nutter.

Two thirds of the way up it began to rain. Hard. Now I was a soaked nutter.

The day hikers were an entertaining bunch. Some made it a good way down the canyon. Others simply stepped in for a photo. Some wore sandals or carried no water. Others openly oggled me but many wanted to talk to me, asking where I was from, how far I’d walked and praising my efforts. I felt proud pointing out the greenery of Indian Garden far below on the valley floor. 

I finally staggered to the top after 2 hours 45 minutes. Fraser was already at the top, having passed me a quarter of the way up. He had completed it in 1 hour 59 minutes!

We were proud.

Drenched nutter “aftershot”

No sooner had we made it to the van than a thunder storm broke out. Hail stones lashed the car, thunder roared overhead and lightening lit the sky. It caused a small flash flood as water and debris cascaded down the roads. I have never been more grateful for shelter. It would’ve felt as if the sky was cracking in two if we had been in the canyon at this moment.

I thought of the day hikers in their sandals.

Surviving Big Bear: California, USA

Our US road trip kicked off in the backcountry of California. Our only plan was to hike, climb and eat our way around the western states. We grabbed a map and looked up locations on the way to Vegas.

That was how we ended up at Big Bear.

Location: Pineknot Trail, San Bernadino National Park, USA

Length: 12.8km (there-and-back)

Looking into the Big Bear wilderness

The country town is nestled in San Bernadino two hours outside Los Angeles. Within minutes the scenery from your car window transforms from sunny suburbia to snow-topped peaks as you snake your way up winding mountain roads. Hordes of hikers, bikers and fishermen and women descend on the town in the summer months to explore the wilderness; Big Bear lake is surrounded by forests full of trails. The town is also home to rustic log cabins which house skiers and snowboarders in the winter. The snow had not yet melted, even in April, and some winter sports could still be seen. This was a stark contrast to the warm LA beaches we had left behind. The town is rich in history as well as the outdoors, having played a part during the Californian Gold Rush.

It’s my kind of town.

There was only one problem…

… bears!

For the first time I would hike into the realm of a real predator. Before leaving New Zealand I had the unfortunate realisation that all outdoor activities I enjoy would be in bear country in the USA. Growing up in London I never had to deal with an animal more frightening than a fox. Urban streets are home to a different sort of wilderness, a different type of predator. My two years in Australia had introduced me to some wild animals – the land down under is crawling with poisonous snakes and spiders – but this would be my first time entering the zone of a predator with claws and teeth.

To add context to my concerns here is a photo of a stuffed bear we came across before our hike!

Big Bear town did not calm my nerves. Bear signs line the roads and the locals love to display ferocious bear carvings in their yards. We arrived in town late and camp grounds were full for the Easter Weekend. For plan B we pulled up on a deserted wilderness road right next to a warning bear sign. The darkness swallowed the forest around us.

Fraser couldn’t understand why I was scared.

We visited an outdoor store to purchase bear spray before hiking. These are pressurised canisters of pepper spray used to deter attacking bears. The assistant was helpful in answering my many, many questions about the safety of our hike:

“Don’t worry about bears at Pineknot! You’re more likely to be attacked by a mountain lion… But don’t worry, the spray works on those too.”

I was not appeased by this news.

Pineknot Trail is a picturesque 12.8km walk to-and-from the Grand Viewpoint of Big Bear. The landscape is incredibly varied in the spring. The trail began warm, dry and dusty with a moderately steep ascent. A short way up small patches of ice appeared, seeming oddly out of place in the sunshine. Further on streams of meltwater flooded the pathways, bridged with deadfall.

Fraser navigating his way through the snow

Next, large boulders and rocky outcrops appeared, replacing the dusty shrubs below. The higher we climbed the thicker the ice became until it covered entire sections of the trail. The temperature dropped as the trees grew denser around us and the wind whipped through exposed areas.

Demonstrating the size of the rocky outcrops

The path was buzzing with tourists, families and dog walkers. A quick glance revealed we were the only ones armed with bear spray. I was surprised to see people walking with children, toddlers and even babies. I had expected the threats of bears and mountain lions to keep people away. Naturally I insisted Fraser wore the bear spray on his Osprey strap, ready for sudden attacks. He grumbled when we realised we looked like OTT tourists, but he wore it anyway 🙂

My senses tingled during quiet sections of trail. Hyper-aware of my surroundings, I found myself anxiously assessing bear-shaped objects;. I jumped with the sudden appearance of boulders or logs; I even jumped with the appearance of mammals… like dogs… and humans.

The trail opens up onto an exposed viewpoint with panoramic views of the tree-studded valleys below. Pine trees dominate the picture, interspersed with rocks and boulders. It was unlike any viewpoint I have seen in New Zealand and beautiful in its own way.

Spectacular mountainous scenery at the Grand Viewpoint

The Grand Viewpoint was packed when we arrived but by the time we had taken our photos we were the only two remaining. Dusk was approaching and I didn’t want to fall behind. The spring temperatures were dropping rapidly and the sun was low in the sky. We descended quickly, navigating the familiar terrain with ease.

I left the hike relieved to survive but secretly disappointed I didn’t catch a glimpse of a bear. It took us 3.5 hours (including lunch and many photo stops) to cover the 12.8km.

We continued our road trip East and I was glad to leave bear country behind. We took the mountain road down from Big Bear and found ourselves in a vast desert valley; roads stretched flat and straight as far as the eye could see; snow-capped mountains imposed on the valley, glowering down like giants, juxtaposed against the parched land below. It was interesting to see mobile homers scattered throughout the desert, miles from any town. The land looked inhospitable and unforgiving. It couldn’t be more different to Big Bear.

Noosa (our legendary home for the road trip!) parked in the desert outside Big Bear

We spent the roaring Saturday night at a local saloon, the Joshua Tree Bar and Grill. Beer flowed, musicians twanged and the burgers were delicious. It was just like in the movies. We were the only people in the place without an American accent and the Pollen Collective entertained us with a real American performance.

Stepping into bear country was an enlightening experience. The sense of danger felt as real and immediate to me as stepping in front of a car. The locals, however, were completely unconcerned. This muddled my high-risk/low-risk radar. If you don’t live in the land of predators it’s a difficult danger to judge; hiking is dangerous yet not dangerous at the same time. I now reason that bear country in North America is the same as the ocean in Australia; if you choose to venture in, you accept the risk and forget about it.

I’m undecided as to whether sharks or bears are more frightening… For now, we continue our journey to Joshua Tree National Park.

Call of the Wild: Cobb Valley, NZ

Two worlds collide when humans roam into the realm of nature, the world of predator and prey. Here, wild animals operate outside the constructions of human existence. We are out of touch with this pure, primitive code, hardwired into our DNA but lying dormant within the comforts of modern civilisation. We are surprised when nature chews up our rules and spits them out.

The Cobb Valley is crawling with creatures and they aren’t shy.

Location: Cobb Valley, Kahurangi National Park, South Island, NZ

Length: 3 days, 2 nights

KM: 44.27

Best moment: Mount Gibbs summit

Blunder of the trip: Food weight

Gear epiphany: Fuel usage

The Cobb Valley rivals Lake Waikaremoana in its beauty and tranquility. The trails wend their way through flourishing foliage, meandering rivers and sweeping valleys. Trampers step from bush scenery to mountain views in seconds; with mountain views everywhere you turn, it feels like you are living on the cover of the National Geographic.

Weka on the loose

I had a quick introduction to a curious and cheeky species of bird at the Cobb River Campsite: wekas! These greedy, gobbling birds have evidently been tamed by the presence of humans and attracted by the morsels of food they leave behind. They look like tiny dinosaurs with scaly legs protruding from their fat, feathered bodies. Fraser and I spent the morning chasing two wekas away from our breakfast. One bird seized our entire bag of oats and made its escape while the other took a beak-full of porridge straight from the stove. Our stunned faces said it all.

The Cobb River Campsite also accommodates the largest colony of bumble bees I have ever seen. Hundreds of bees swarm the air. My brightly coloured clothes were perpetually covered in bees and I was barely able to move. They followed me into the car, into the bathroom and down to the river. The only peace I received was when I submerged my body in the freezing cold river. Needless to say, we were both stung.

Our first night was spent in Chaffey Hut, a 7~km walk from the Cobb River Campsite. This 1950’s hut was crafted from rough, knotted beechwood and recently refurbished by the Deer Stalkers Association and the people of Golden Bay. The hut retains much of its original charm with endearing imperfections, a romantic fireplace and ancient-looking tools; at night the candlelight bounces off the assortment of copper pots and pans hanging from the ceiling. I loved it.

Chaffey Hut

We shared the three-person hut with a hardcore female tramper: shout out to Mags, our inspiration of the trip! A park ranger living in the Auckland region, she was hitchhiking her way around the Kahurangi. 

Fraser and I lumbered up like loaded donkeys with bulging packs and aching shoulders. Mags must’ve smelt the naivety emanating from us. We joined her at the table and settled in for an evening of trading food and stories. Mags nearly fell off her seat when we pulled out raw onions, carrots and rice; I didn’t dare show her the tinned chilli beans. She cooked her meal in five minutes flat, simply boiling noodles, dehydrated peas and cous cous in her pot and adding flavour with a ‘Cuppa soup’. Our rice boiled on while Mags cooked, ate and cleaned up. 

Her comical tales of inexperienced hikers taught us lots but left us blushing. Mags recalled one friend who dared to pack deodorant and facewash for a hike. I later hid my deodorant and facewash deep in my bag… alongside my electric toothbrush. The Londoner in me was truly exposed when I asked if there was an electric light in the hut. Cover blown.

The hours spent with Mags were the most enlightening of our hiking career. We quickly learnt to value meals that are light, quick and sparingly packaged. Remember, you have to carry your fuel and rubbish as well as your food. Unfortunately, we had to learn about unnecessary pack weight the hard way.

We camped the following night beside a tarn in our most beautiful surroundings yet. Mounts Xenicus and Gibbs rose majestically to the west with views of the valley to the east. We arrived at the water’s edge after a long and sweaty day. Fraser jumped right in but I needed encouraging after my experience at Waikaremoana. I relaxed when Fraser wasn’t immediately devoured by underwater creatures. We swam as bare, natural humans emersed in the bare, natural environment. No sooner had we dried and dressed than an Australian couple strolled around the corner. Fortunate timing.

Our camp spot beside the tarn

We awoke to the sound of kea circling our tent. These native parrots can be identified by their bright green and red plumage. Kea sadly hold the conservation status of ‘threatened’. Like wekas, they are cheeky. Unlike wekas, they are intelligent. Kea have been known to turn their inquisitive attention towards hiking gear; nothing is safe from their sharp beaks. Fraser and I kept a careful eye over our gear as we prepared breakfast. This included tying our bootlaces together to prevent boot theft. The kea weren’t put off by our presence and continued to play next to us so we were lucky to capture a few rare snapshots.

Our new kea friends

We had risen early to take on the might of Mount Gibbs which towers over the Cobb Valley at 1645m. The ascent was more arduous even than the tephra of Ngauruhoe as we made our route through an overgrown basin. Progress was slow as we forced our way through waist-high shrubs. The curving gradient of the basin was more challenging than the steep but sturdy terrain of the ridges flanking it. My grumpiness increased with my decision not to wear gaiters; my boots filled with spiky grass while spaniards poked my bare legs.

My grumbling trudge was broken by the sudden the call of an animal. A herd of mountain goats stood tentatively at the edge of the trees watching our progress. Their acute awareness of our presence amazed me as we would be oblivious to theirs without their warning bleet. Having rarely seen a goat outside a farm, I was transfixed. A huge billy goat stood at the head of the tribe. He was impressively stout and hairy, standing proudly like a lion. However, when we approached to capture a photo he bounded away, leaving the nannies and kids to stand their ground!

A nanny goat standing her ground

The views at the summit of Mount Gibbs made the basin trudge worthwhile. We stood upon a razorback ridge gazing into endless chains of mountains and valleys extending the length of the Kahurangi. The potential to explore appeared limitless and we regretted our restrictive food supply.

Fraser at the summit

We descended via the ridges which was easy work after the basin. It was here that we crossed paths with a startled chamois. Again, we would’ve missed this fascinating creature if its wasn’t for its warning call. Chamois are a species of mountain goat imported from Europe for hunting. They thrive in the mountainous terrain of New Zealand. The three of us stood staring at each other, metres apart across a chasm. Sadly we were unable to take a photo as the creature fled, taking off down a vertical face with impossible speed and agility. 

The Cobb Valley provided an insight into the world of the wild. Critters ran amok stealing our food, investigating our gear and buzzing after us. Unexpected encounters left us marvelling at the awareness and adaptations of animals. I felt like a blundering human in contrast, uncoordinated and unbalanced; it seems I have a way to go before my primitive code awakens.

Mt Arthur – Summer Summit DIY Adventure Guide

A staggering adventure through alpine beech forest and limestone bluffs yielding panoramic vistas of a land before time

Transport

The Mt Arthur Hut track is accessible via the Flora Saddle, Kahurangi National Park, NZ. The Saddle lies at the top of the Graham Valley South Branch Rd; A gravel road with a steep gradient, best accessed with a 4wd, or at least with a car with a decent bit of clearance. The ‘Flora Saddle’ carpark has a toilet and water source with unlimited parking time. Beware there are Kea here so make sure you keep all of your gear close at hand when prepping your pack.

What clothing/footwear should I Bring in my Day Pack?

Footwear: Boots with ankle support are advised but not strictly required. A hiking shoe will do fine, as long as you have sturdy ankles and good balance. Ideal boots would possess just enough rigidity to walk on loose rock without folding too much, however a shank would be overkill for the majority of this climb. A pair of Salomon 4D 3GTX boots are the best candidate for this summer trip.

Legs: Shorts will do the trick in sunny weather and Gaiters are overkill as there are no river crossings and little potential for flora to access your boots.

Upper Body: Even on the sunniest, calmest days, prepare for cold wind and sunburn. Whilst the trail begins in the bush, it eventually meanders out onto a ridge far above the bush-line, thus wind and sun exposure increases dramatically. To compensate, I suggest a minimum of a breathable long sleeve shirt, Down Mid-layer and wind-breaking waterproof shell.

Headwear: A beanie and gloves may also be useful if the clouds blow in. Again, check your weather prior to leaving. Glasses are also a must, as the glorious views will be painful without uv protection.

What food should I bring?

I burnt 2234 calories completing the summit as a day trip from flora. Once again as a day trip, I wouldn’t get carried away matching calorie for calorie, however, i’d advise a couple thousand calories as it is a 6.5 hour return trip. My go to was once again, crackers, cheese, salami, one square meals, dark chocolate and mixed nuts and raisins.

Water

There are two potential water sources on the trail. The first at the Flora Car park and the next at the Mt Arthur Hut. You can check the water status of the Mt Arthur Hut here. It will sometimes have a ‘dry’ alert in the summer, as was the case when I completed the summit. I would recommend bringing a vessel with a 1.5L carrying capacity, as you can fill it at flora, drink it on your way up to the hut, then fill it at the hut, drink to summit, and fill it up un the same locations on your way back down.

Maps + GPS

Click here to download my GPX file

Additionally, here is the link to the old faithful DOC description.

How physically difficult is it?

At the time of measuring this, I possessed a moderate-high level of fitness.

Average heart rate 110bpm (58% of max). Max heart rate 162bpm (85% of max).
Percentage of time spent in heart rate zones 1-5
How technical is it?

Moderate difficulty, non-technical in summer. The route is easily navigable with a combination of rock cairns, marker poles and a well worn trail. GPS is probably not required, but it is always nice if the weather turns south. The route become steadily steeper and more of a scramble the closer to the summit. Steep fatal falls are also possible and I would not advise attempting the route if you lack balance and coordination. There are also numerous limestone caves within the area and there is a chance you could fall into one if not adhering to the track. Explore off track at your own risk. I recommend taking a personal locater beacon.

Nature and Science

Dracophyllum Traversii or the ‘Mountain Nei Nei’ is worth recognising on this trek. On your way through the bush up to Mt Arthur Hut, keep your eyes peeled for New Zealand’s oldest living indigenous small tree. These cabbage-tree-like plants look strikingly similar to those in Dr Seuss’s ‘The Lorax’. Individuals are documented to live as long as 600 years, with a single tree dropping as many as 750,000 seeds in one event; quite the remarkable plant. See below for a photo of Madison beside our first Mountain Nei Nei. – info sourced from here.

Madison beside a Mountain Nei Nei