Monday, April 09, 2007

Disappearing Huts and Other Mysteries

Planning a camping trip in New Zealand can be a challenge at the best of times. Weather conditions are notoriously hard to predict, and even the most accurate topographic maps don't always tell the whole story. So when G and I sat down to make plans for the Easter weekend, it seemed like a simple enough task--but of course it wasn't.

Our original plan involved a three day trip, staying at two huts in the western Tararuas. The route was a complete loop, which is always nice. One-way trips are a pain to organize, and you need to team up with others who have a car to shuttle. The only other option is to backtrack to your starting point, which means essentially doing the same hike twice.

Having chosen our potential route, I decided to check it out on the internet and see what others had to say about it. Enter problem number one.

One of the huts we'd seen on our map, and decided to stay in on our second night, no longer existed! It had been damaged in a 2003 storm, and removed by the Department of Conservation. The replacement hut hasn't been built yet. Well, there goes our plan!

I also learned that the riverside trail I was hoping to loop back along wasn't really a trail at all. For most of the time, you just follow the river any way that works. This means that if it rains the day before, you could be walking in the river all day--or worse, it could be impassible in places. Our plan was sounding worse and worse.

It was around this time that I convinced G to cut back the trip to two days, staying at the one hut on our route that was still standing, called Waiopehu Hut.

We headed out on Good Friday, in almost perfect weather. April can be pretty rough at times, but the day was shaping up to be sunny, warm and calm. The track was estimated to take 5 hours to reach the hut, and we set off at 10am to tackle our climb up the ridge.

About half way to the hut, according to our topo map, there was a shelter which had fallen on hard times. These emergency shelters are scattered around the mountains, offering some protection to trampers who get caught out in bad weather and can't make it to the next hut.

When I realised that at 2pm we still hadn't passed a shelter, I was more than a little concerned about the time estimate on the track. We are admittedly not very fast walkers, and we often take longer than the estimates to reach our destination. And after all, we hadn't been on a trip since early February. (Where does the time go?!) Still, if we weren't yet half way after 4 hours, we were looking at a long day!
Just after 3pm we reached a clearing and found a sign that said "Old Waiopehu Hut Site". I knew that the hut had been replaced recently, but I wasn't sure how far away they'd moved it. One thing was for sure--the shelter on the map didn't exist! And what about the Waiopehu Hut on our map? Was it showing the old location, where we were standing, or the new one? If the one on the map was the old one, how far away might the new one still be?

It was a relief to arrive at the hut less than half an hour later. And not only was it a shiny, new hut, but it had a spectacular view over the ridge. We could see across to the next ridge, where another track would lead us back to the beginning of the route the next day. We could also see down to the coastline to the west, where hot air balloons from a nearby balloon festival dotted the sky at dusk. (This picture is from slightly earlier, so no balloons.)

Inside the hut things were buzzing. Since it was a long weekend, the trampers were out in force, and in total there were 14 people sleeping at the hut that night. (True to form, I ended up sleeping next to the only one who snored!)

One of the other groups were locals who had done the other ridge track several years before. According to them, it was overgrown and hard to find in places, and deeply eroded in others. Our hike up had been quite reasonable, but after several weeks of sloth it had been tough enough for us. The longer, harder and possibly hard to follow route back didn't sound appealing at all! I made an executive decision (and G didn't fight it) that we would hike out on the same track we came up on. At least we'd know what we were in for that way.

The next day was another beautiful one. Still warm and calm, with the clouds gradually breaking up around noon. We may not have had too much adventure on our trip, but we had some wonderful views and great walking weather. Let's hope winter doesn't show up too soon.

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