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New Zealand is fast becoming one of the best destinations in the world for multi-day hiking. The country’s nine Great Walks (including the world famous Milford Track) are all multi-day experiences, and there are hundreds of other multi-day one-way, and loop tracks to take in, all over the country.
Before I arrived in New Zealand I had experience in multi-day hiking and cycling trips in the UK and Europe, but they almost always involved a tent. One of New Zealand’s many points of difference with other popular destinations for multi-day hiking, is its network of over 950 backcountry huts. The oldest of these date back to the late 1800s, but most were built around the 1960s and 70s when deer culling was at its height. The huts range from small sheds with a sleeping mat, four walls and a roof, to double glazed, insulated lodges with gas cookers, log fires, and small bedrooms.
In my experience of multi-day hiking in New Zealand’s stunning backcountry, the focus of the occasion is not on the hut itself. Yes, to an extent, your focus, and your relief, may be realised when you arrive at the hut for which you’ve been aiming – that always depends on how well your hike has gone, and the uncontrollable factors that have influenced it. In my experience any backcountry hut represents shelter, and is a vehicle which serves to facilitate recovery, and regeneration, but also conversation, and stories. Those are the things that New Zealand’s backcountry huts represent, and are the reasons kiwis and tourists alike place such value on the backcountry, multi-day experience.
My first New Zealand multi-day hiking experience was a two night, three day trip into Nelson Lakes National Park, in the north of the South Island. It was days 2-5 of a 14 day South Island trip, and was a requirement for my training as a guide for Active Adventures.
Whilst the trip was primarily a learning experience, a bunch of new guides learning the hiking routes, the rivers, the plan Bs and Cs, and all that goes with guiding in the New Zealand wilderness, it was also about getting to know one another. In any experience that pushes you outside your comfort zone, and tests you in a new way or a new environment, it’s so often the people, and their stories that last longest in memory.
In my experience you should always have a guide in New Zealand’s backcountry, their experience of changeable weather, river crossings, and hiking routes, is invaluable.
I remember those few days, more than 2 years ago, in Nelson Lakes National Park vividly. I remember the weather, I remember the conversations I had with people, I even remember who the snorers were in our hut! They are fond memories, and I think I can only recall them because they are experiences I shared with others, and others with which I felt connections.
Whilst our first day’s hiking was only a few hours, and flat, day two was totally different. We started the day with a crossing of the Travers River, and then proceeded up the Hukere Stream track to Angelus Hut, an elevation gain of 1000m (3000ft). Being a bunch of young, energetic new guides, we were all quietly competing with one another, to prove that we were capable of doing the job – and we all were and are. But I remember thinking at each water break, having been slogging steadily uphill thinking: ‘How am I going to get our guests up here?’ Steep hiking, sometimes scrambling, up a stunning, ever-narrowing valley, I couldn’t see where our finish line could be. And only now that I’ve been there do I understand the concern that that feeling of not knowing brings.
We arrived at Angelus Hut, and whilst I was relieved to be at the end of the hike, to have made it, and proved that I was capable, it was the stunning beauty of the place that I remember first. The concern I’d felt on the way up, about being able to get our guests to that point, melted away. I knew that I was capable of articulating to those who haven’t seen it, how beautiful that place is; but more than that, I know now that I can explain to them the memories, and the feelings that made the experience mean so much.
Countless times since then I have guided groups in Nelson Lakes National Park, and all the way up to Angelus Hut, on the shores of Lake Angelus in that breath taking basin, below the high peak of Mt Angelus. And often I had guests express concern that they may not be able to make it – even though they are asked in the booking process if it’s something they’re capable of, and they would not be there if they hadn’t said yes.
I knew that those guys were capable of completing that hike, and somewhere within themselves, they knew it too. They had spent countless minutes and hours considering (with a much clearer head than the one they had during that tough uphill hike) whether or not to tick that box that says ‘yes, I can do the hike to Angelus Hut’. And then they’d all ticked it. So I was never worried from a safety point of view. The only barriers we ever had to get beyond were mental – and we always got beyond them. I can say proudly that I never had to turn back with anyone, and passing round the surprise bottle of scotch, sharing the backcountry cheesecake, or drying off in front of the fire, feels all the better when everyone who starts finishes!
In my experience multi-day hiking in New Zealand’s backcountry is about seeing the most beautiful scenery, but earning that view. And in the process, it becomes about the friendships formed through sharing in that testing experience. So get out there and do it, but do it safely!
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