Blisters, agonising pain, and exhaustion; dehydration, darkness and extreme distance; all in a 24 hour near marathon bookended by 900km of combined driving: this was my first “tramping” experience.
The West Coast’s Copland track is a rewarding traipse through some glorious mountain terrain, but each step along the 34km return journey can feel like a katana blade slowly whittling away your ability to exist if you are ill – equipped and ill – prepared. But, this is how I roll.
Tramping in New Zealand is what we call hiking in Canada, and it is immensely popular here. The Department of Conservation(DOC) operates hundreds of walks, and hikes across the country ranging in difficulty from a leisurely stroll, to a dangerous trek requiring proper mountaineering equipment. Among these trails are the nine Great Kiwi Walks, which are designed to show off most of the key highlights of the New Zealand landscape. These walks attempt to strike a balance between adventure and accessibility for all, so that people of all levels of age and fitness can enjoy New Zealand’s highest drawing tourist attraction: its beautiful landscape. The Great Kiwi walks are family friendly, but last for several days, so not doable on a weekend off from work. Therefore these “Great Walks”, would have to wait.
I was keen to do some proper hiking though. I was ill-equipped with some sturdy walking shoes, (which I thought to be sufficient) and I finally had made the acquaintance of someone who was willing to go “tramping” with me on the West Coast’s Copland trail, some 450km away from Christchurch, just south of Fox Glacier. It was a two day trek: one day in, a night camping, and one day back. The DOC maintains a very helpful website with a listing of all of their trails and parks, which includes distances, maps, and estimated completion times. Most Kiwis had told me that these completion times were quite conservative, and on the long distances you could usually reduce the estimate by an hour or two. So, with an estimated completion time of seven hours, my new tramping partner Jonas and I thought five hours to be a reasonable estimate to complete the Copland Track, given that we were only travelling 17km, and given that neither of us had ever attempted such a feat before.
The fact that we were gallivanting 17km into dense alpine rain-forest, crossing rivers with class 4 rapids that had forced closure of the track not one month previous due to flooding, and departing on a five (potentially seven) hour journey into the unknown three hours before sunset, did not deter us either. The scenery and adventure were too much temptation to pass up. But, the real icing on the cake, was the promise of four natural hot pools nestled in the cradle of the Southern Alps by the picturesque Copland River at the end of the journey.
One of my favourite memories from my first visit to New Zealand in 2007 was the Cold Stream hot pool outside of Waiotapu on the North Island. I had now been in New Zealand for seven months, and had yet to set foot in a natural hot pool. This had to be rectified. Even, as it turned out, if I had to sacrifice my body to do it.
Our guide was pamphlet from the DOC, with a very small scale map of the route. We knew that the hut at the end of the rack was closed for renovations, but were hoping that it would be left unlocked and we would not be forced to utilise the tent we were packing. This track being labelled as one for experienced trampers only, I decided I was qualified based on my limited wooden tracked walks through Jasper National Park back home counted as experience, but used my 'common-sense" and left Stephanie and the girls at home.
McPhee Creek Crossing
A False Start
Our start set us back about 45 minutes. We did not read the pamphlet at all before we set out, and decided we would use it only if we were stuck. We therefore missed the instructions to cross the five branches on the Karangarua River and start at the orange triangle on the other side. There being no footbridge in sight either we decided to walk up the river bank on the same side hoping to find a narrower crossing that would not mean us getting our feet wet right at the start of the journey. There was however, no trail (it turned out if we had kept walking there was a bridge about half an hour up stream) We then consulted the pamphlet and readjusted. Taking great care not get our feet wet as we hopped stones over the river channels. About 45 minutes later, we were passed the estimated five minute river crossing that starts the trail, and were burning daylight fast.
We soon made up time as we ran through some rugged terrain that was reasonably well marked and cleared up until the first of many clearings that revealed the fast flowing turquoise water of the Copland river, which ran more or less adjacent to the track the whole way until it meets the Karangarua River near the start of the track. The trail continued on as a well vegetated walk in the park would, and then we hit our first of many challenging sections. A one kilometre climb over riverside boulders, up and down hills and valleys, straight up small waterfalls and onward to the first hut at Architect Creek, all the while stopping for photos of every change in scenery, and the occasional snack and water break. Physically I was fine up until we reached the first hut, but I was underestimating the length and brutality of the second half of the track. I of course did not know this at the time.
No Pain No Gain
Despite the fact that it was getting close to sunset, we decided to keep on keeping on. Forget the first hut, it was still miles away from the hot pools, which honestly was the whole point of the journey in the first place. It was about a kilometre out that I started to feel the first twinge in my right knee. I had of course by this time taken many missteps, as I raced through what was actually fairly punishing terrain, and the I.T. band in my knee was starting to let me know that I should take it easy. My toes were a bit damp as well, and my feet were well elevated from the proper soles of my shoes by an added insole, so they were sliding around a bit, and I could not ignore the dull throb in my toes that would crescendo to a raging inferno by the end of the night. Still, we kept on.
Along the second half of the track there were six bridges between the two DOC huts. These became ominous beacons of survival and progress as the night wore on, and the bane of our existence, as each one was estimated to be a hell of a lot closer than reality would grant.
While we had the light, the scenery was truly awe inspiring. We were again blessed with glorious sunshine and warmth while back home in Christchurch, it poured, and up in Blenheim, where Jonas had just come from, they shook to the tune of a 6.6 magnitude earthquake and around fifty aftershocks. We had fresh rain-forest/mountain air, the at times near, at times distant roar of the river rapids, and the serrated mountain skyline. I caught the McPhee creek crossing in the perfect light to take some beautiful shots of the small waterfalls cascading over the boulders, this did little to help our race against the sun, but in the end made for some great photos. I am thankful to Sylvain Gaffie, our one time roommate in Christchurch for helping me to learn the ins and outs of my SLR camera.
With each passing bridge we felt like we were winning an epic struggle against Mother Nature, each one seeming farther than the last. Because of the commitment to our task, our increasing hunger, and the now absent sun we spoke little. We spoke little, so my mind wandered. It is in no way the same, but I thought of the death marches of World War II. Certainly they were worse than this? And to not know when the end was going to be, must have been truly aggravating. To march in extreme physical pain and hunger would have been unbearable. I do not wish to martyrise myself here, I am after all on a hike for pleasure, not a march for my life, but this is where my mind went. Often. So I felt it worth mentioning.
The mind does funny things when allowed to brood in silence. I also thought of my family back home in Christchurch, and how, more adequately prepared, I would like to take them here. Finally, I thought of my dad, who had always wanted to come to New Zealand, but would never have the opportunity, but would so have deserved and loved the relaxation in the pools at the end of this demanding journey. Anyway, these were my thoughts.
Two of the last bridges were suspension bridges. We were now in the pitch of dark, but everything had a beautiful glow thanks to the half-moonlight reflecting off of the snow-capped mountains. The Architect Creek Bridge over the same named creek was a bit scary in the dark. It bridged two steep hills below which was a valley laden with thousands of large jagged boulders and the river raging at its highest intensity. The bridge was of a metal suspension variety, sustainable to one at a time, and incredibly bouncy. More disconcerting was the assurance of certain death if you happened to topple over the edge somehow. The second aforementioned bridge, shared all of the same characteristics, except the river below was much more calm, still moving quickly, but not as perilous looking. This bridge was perhaps more chilling because it was suspended about 75 metres in the air. I do not have huge fear of heights, but neither do I share a huge love for them. This bridge was a fair bit longer as well, and the quicker you walked the more it bounced and shook. The good news was that after the latter bridge over Open Creek, there was only one left to go, and then we would reach Val Halla a.k.a. Welcome Flat Hut!
The last five kilometres of track had some fairly technical elements, and we were by this time running on headlamps at about half our daylight speed to avoid further injury to my legs, which were already screaming bloody murder regarding the torturous punishment I was currently unleashing on them with each explosive laden step. Each downward step was worse than the last, as all muscles and tendons converged on swollen ligaments and attacked with a relentless onslaught, as the rest of my body tried to maintain a facsimile of uprightedness. I say “my” legs, because Jonas seemed to be doing: Just. Fine.
After what seemed like an age, we reached the hut, and discovered that it was definitely under construction. We also noted a light on in the staff quarters. We hoped that they would take pity on us, and let us spend the night rather than set up our tent in the dark. It was 9:10pm, six hours and forty minutes after we left. Not quite the full seven, but not the estimated five either. The two tenants in the staff quarters were hikers just like us, who had no idea the hut was closed, had no tent, and were lucky that the DOC workers let them stay in the hut. Those same workers had already gone to bed, so we decided to join them in the hut. Jonas made some bland rice with no salt on the fireplace, and I, not feeling all that bothered, ate a can of cold baked beans, and a bag of Doritos to help with the absorption of the copious amounts of water I was about to down, having run out of my supply about two hours previous. I was starting to feel the effects of dehydration and an intense pain was now radiating outward from the base of my skull. The camp site was by a fresh mountain river where I refilled my water bottle and downed the full litre in about thirty seconds. Refreshing does not begin to describe the feeling that came over my body. Choruses of hallelujah broke out all over the mountain-side as I stripped down to my boxers and made my way to the hot pools for my well-earned reward, all the while keeping look out for avalanches that the angelic hallelujah choruses were sure to have set off. I was in my boxers because I had stupidly forgotten swimming attire, so too had Jonas, but he opted for a more “natural” swim.
The hot pools were a short walk from the hut, and given that it was dark, and we were tired, we plunged right on in. Had it been daylight, I might have thought better of this. I was startled at the texture of the hot pool floor, a mossy, spongy, seaweed sort of texture, and hot was an understatement. Scalding would have been more apt! I jumped right back out, danced on some sharp stones, and then just about fell right back in. I decided to proceed more carefully the second time. There were four pools and I opted to try one directly behind the one I had just entered, but it was quite cold by comparison. I eventually edged my way back into the scalding hot pool, and once accustomed to the temperature I was able to relax, and the sulphuric heat radiated deep within my aching bones, and my pains literally melted away. You have to understand that my body was in the worst physical state it had ever willingly been put into (this was about to be trumped by the hike back out the following morning).
The Ends Justify the Means
Words cannot adequately describe the night setting we were privy to, nor could my camera as it was a bright half-moon (this seriously hampered my photographic evidence collecting), which was too bad as it was also a crisp, crystal-clear sky.
The river could be heard in the distance, snow-capped mountains surrounded us in a 270° radius, the moonlight offered a resplendent glow to all aspects of the mountain-scape, and I was again taken aback by the sheer infinity of the universe as I regarded the splendour of this Kiwi night sky. All of this from the comfort of a natural hot pool en-plein-air.
I could not bear the heat for long, and at the risk of passing out, submerging my head, and risking amoebic meningitis, I headed back to the hut. I was amazed how much more comfortable the short walk back was. I could move freely, the stabbing joint pain was now just a dull throb, and I had the sensation that I was not walking, but floating back to the hut.
Unfortunately, the effects of the hot pool were not permanent. As I shuffled about in the morning preparing for the journey home, I was in a state of genuine apprehension regarding the impending physical effort that lay ahead of me. It was to be 17km of sheer agony. The worst of it was that we were more or less uphill from the car-park, and moving downhill required much more physical control through the contracting and releasing of key muscle groups.
When we set off, I was able to walk with minimal limping, and we were doing alright for time. We were able to take in the terrifying spectacles of the suspension bridges we had crossed in the dark the night before, but after the Tataphaka Creek crossing, it all started to go downhill. Where I led most of the previous day, I now trailed by several hundred meters behind Jonas, who was making an effort to go more slowly. Where I had hopped carelessly from stone to stone the previous day, I now grunted grimaced and growled as I took about ten baby steps around and down various obstacles that Jonas cleared effortlessly in one bound. Frustration does not begin to describe my mind-set as I rounded each corner hoping to find a nice easy straight-away, or a landmark that would indicate some significant passage of distance.
On and on I crawled, until, seven hours later, we finally reached the car park. The others who had stayed in the hut and left around the same time were now long gone. A French pair who had started much later, had passed us and were just getting ready to leave in their car. But I did it. And it was amazing. All that remained between me and true rest was a five hour car ride home. This ride was perhaps worst of all as it set all of my aches and pains (I later counted seven severe blisters on my feet). I was literally crawling into my house around 11pm Sunday night, much worse for the wear, but thankful to be home and keen for the next adventure.
Happily married to my beautiful wife Stephanie, and proud father of three beautiful girls, Aurora, Brynn and Clara. Master student, working in South America as a Social and English teacher: writing when I find time.