New Zealand: The Gillespie Pass

Wanaka then. Being a sunny Sunday in the summer holidays is full of people. No matter, I have more chores to do than I have time to spend trying to get a photo of a tree. First hot shower in a week. First laundry in two weeks. As money starts to run out, frugal habits that would have helped the cash flow from the beginning are now vital. I meet Iain and his wife, Charlotte, to confirm logistics for our tramp over the Gillespie Pass. We come to an agreement to take the Jet Boat over the Makarora River, even though the water will likely be low enough to walk across. We should be able to complete the route in four days, three nights. This is good because I learn we already have a table booked at Bistro Gentil for Thursday night. Iain convinces me I will have enjoy myself because they have a wall of soft drink dispensers but they dispense wine instead of soft drinks. I won’t have to worry about not liking almost all wine and can try as many as required to find one I like. Too easy. I go back to the camp ground and pack my bag. Then I wander back through Wanaka, quieter now, to Rhyme and Reason Brewery. Kelly and Pike told me I must, so I did. A tasting paddle of four delicious beers is a reminder of another sacrifice made for the cause of freedom. Any good traveller knows booze hits the wallet hardest. With a nice fuzz on, I drift back to the van for a simple dinner of instant noodles. Down one arm of the lake the peaks of Mount Aspiring National Park carry chalk smudges of snow. Difficult to know now if I’ll get a closer look. Every choice I’ve made has opened doors and closed others. I can’t see it all, but I’ll see as much as I can. Even That Wanaka Tree.

I get up early, partly because I have to and partly because maybe I might have had too much beer. I process through the remaining chores. I’ve got 15 minutes until Iain and Charlotte come to pick me up, which is just enough time to get the water tanks emptied and cleaned. I pull out of the campground to find they’re already here. I wave as I drive on past. I really need to empty the waste water before leaving the van for another 4 days in what looks set to be glorious sunshine. Summer, at last. Then I’m in the back of someone else’s car, enjoying the benefits of being a passenger. Staring out of the window as the lakes, the mountains pass us by. On the way out we commit to a pick up time of 4pm at the Blue Pools Car Park three days from now. “I’ve got a super secret surprise in my bag,” says Iain. “If we didn’t have to bring our tents I was going to bring a super secret surprise of a few beers,” I tell him. “My super secret surprise isn’t that super,” he confesses, “I’ve got a packet of ginger nuts.”  The definitive, indestructible, perfect dunker. I’m pretty happy with the super secret surprise. We arrive at Wilkin River Jets, check in, confirm our drop off requirements. There’a set of scales in the reception. I clock in at 17kg, Iain weighs up at 18kg. He is carrying the ginger nuts after all. As we’re readying to leave the skipper asks if we want to go further upstream. There’s another woman coming with us, she’s off fishing further up the Wilkin River. He’s got to go that far anyway so can save time by only making the one drop. It’ll save us a few hours walk and we don’t have to part with any more money so why not?  We dump our bags in the back of the boat, pull on life jackets and hold on to our hats. 

I don’t really know what a jet boat is. I’m still not entirely sure. I think it runs on some kind of magic. A New Zealand farmer invented the jet boat in order to navigate the often shallow rivers of his station. Instead of having a low hanging outboard motor, the flat bottomed boat has a jet on the back. Water is sucked up through a hole in the bottom, which makes no sense, and is blasted out the rear. This also enables the boat to turn instantly, which makes for some ridiculous drifts around corners. I peer into the sparkling blue of the Makarora River. I doubt we’d have got more than waist deep wet if we’d crossed on foot. Then the jet boat accelerates and there’s no time to think of what might have been. We skim over the shallows, bouncing across the surface. The skipper navigates the channels, sliding down pebble lined braids. We slam around the corner and begin blasting up the Wilkin. In no time at all the boat slows and bumps up against the riverbank. We climb out over the front on to the shore. “Best $50 I ever spent,” said Iain. “Definitely beats the bus,” I admit. 

The first stretch of our trail is easy. Easier still because we’ve come several kilometres further up stream. We wade through the long golden brown grasses of the meadow flats, moving steadily towards Kerrin Forks Hut. At some stage we would have planned to spend a night here but now there’s no need. We can push all the way through to Siberia Hut to camp on night one. Overheard a helicopter, then a small plane pass over head. The other ways in to Siberia Valley. As we close in on Kerrin Forks hut the roar of the jet boat comes up behind us. People stand up all along the silver stone beaches. People are waiting for their lift back to civilization. We turn the corner and begin climbing relentless switchbacks. People come down wearing denim shorts and cotton shirts. Bright white trainers the dead giveaway for day walkers. If you’re looking for a packed day of adventure you can fly into Siberia Valley, walk out to Kerrin Forks Hut and catch the jet boat back to Makarora. “You fellas are doing it the hard way,” one old boy tells us. I think, well yes, obviously. We’re carrying four days worth of gear in. He means the direction of travel. We’re battling up hill, against the flow of traffic, against the route guidance from the Department of Conservation. The way out from Siberia Valley is a kinder up hill climb. As the switchback pile up Iain and I both go through the same thought processes. Surely just around the next corner. It can’t climb anymore can it? Always does. At last we plateau, which seems a good a time as any to break out the cheese and crackers.

Over the course of lunch we somehow end up on the subject of Lego, of which we are both fans helping to further cement the bonds of friendship. As we set off downhill, I try to eat an apple, lengthen my poles and take a photo all at the same time. I learn quickly this level of multi tasking isn’t something I’m capable of and have to stop to cough up chunks of apple, adjust my poles and put my phone away. “I think things are going to get good around this corner.” Iain tells me as we close in on Siberia Hut. “Are you going to have to put my jaw back together?” I ask. The trees part to reveal the still ridiculous blues of the Siberia Stream, golden meadows reach out to touch the edge of the beech forest. The trees climb up the valley sides. White clouds roll over the snow topped Mount Dreadful in the V of the valley’s end. Wow. Siberia Hut pops out of the trees and we have arrived. After a couple of conversations, a little check on what space we have, we each pick a spot on the tent flattened grass and pitch our homes for the night. A group of youths sit on the hut deck, voices booming across the valley. I can’t complain about the endless use of the outdoor voice seeing as we are outdoors. We do learn further around the corner is a waterfall with a plunge pool perfect for cooling off. I’m keen for a swim, and Iain comes along to get his feet wet if nothing else. Another couple are already in the pool, which if I’m being honest, is amazing. White thunder drops over a rock edge into a deep green cauldron. I strip off and dive in. Cold water might be a cure all. I feel more alive than when we started. Iain, who struggled to get deeper than his ankles on the Rees-Dart slowly, slowly descends into the pool. Then he’s in, swimming out to the waterfall and I am so proud. We come back to the deck for a warming cup of tea, with a couple of ginger nuts for dunking. I ran out of ziplock bags when I was packing and use this opportunity to ask Iain for a massive favour. “Please can you put my teabags in your bag?” He doesn’t look happy about the extra weight. I sit on the deck, listen to stories. Talk to the maybe 11 year old who has more tramping experience than I do. I grill him about his day coming down Gillespie Pass. I’m hopeful that if he’s come down, we’ll be able to go up. Iain and I while away the rest of the evening playing cards before the temperature drops and the mosquitoes start their hunt. 

The cold crash before dawn is my first alarm. The bell bird chime is the snooze. Might as well get on with it. The tent is dew damp and has no chance of drying this morning. I eat breakfast outside, watching the sun slowly climb down the valley walls. Iain comes out much later bringing a french press someone must have had flown in and left at the hut. There’ll be no need for that second cup of tea. I show Iain my new sandals. “Oh those are good, your socks that is.” he says. “Yeah, that’s where I keep my personality.”  “What, in your socks?”  “Yeah.”  “That explains why your feet are in such a mess,” Iain thinks he’s funny. Some of you might be inclined to agree. We’re on the track before the sun has hit the valley floor. The meadows of Siberia Valley disappear quickly, but not fast enough for me. I’ve found my eyes streaming and my nose dribbling. Something in the grass isn’t my friend. We drop our packs on the banks of Gillespie Stream and wade through the cold, knee deep flow of the Siberia Stream. Today we’re heading up to Lake Crucible. The initial ascent in to the valley is a semi-scramble up tree roots, like the track to Brewster Hut all over again. I’m already glad to be without the weight of my pack. Things level off and after a while there’s another stream to cross. I bum slide down a boulder into a thigh deep ice bath. I’m in and I’m wet, might as well keep moving. The current tugs at my legs. I clamber out the other side. Iain fares only slightly better further upstream. We leave the bush line and pass through a rock garden. The final scramble up the moraine terminus is tough in the bright, high sun. I can feel myself slowing down, energy sapping in the heat. The valley walls close in, cliff walls climbing higher, leaning over. I can readily imagine them once joining together. We’re entering the remains of a dragon’s lair. Over the moraine ridge is the second most beautiful mountain lake I have ever seen. Iain is shocked at my disregard for the unreasonable splendour of Crucible Lake, but he hasn’t been to Torres del Paine. Below us is a bowl of turquoise here, green there, brilliant blue water. On the far side of the lake a small wall of dirty grey ice feeds the thirsty water. Grey rock climbs high into the sky, ridge lines are topped with ice. The canon fire of avalanche. Washing machine sized chunks of ice fall from one cliff, smashing on to the rocks below. We clamber down to the lake’s edge. On the rocky shore I strip down. There’s no way I’m not going in. I wade out into the freezing cold waters. Edging deeper. Someone up on the moraine shouts at me to get on with it. “In my own good time,” I shout back. Deep breath and dive. The cold hits like a wall, the most refreshing wall I’ve ever dived into. I come up with a scream, swim out a bit and then paddle back to shore. The water races off my skin and I’m dry in no time. I fill up my water at the lake. Drinking pure, unfiltered glacier fresh water, straight from the source. Ignoring the fact I’ve just washed off in it.

Iain and I take shelter in the shade of a boulder. Iain has already made friends with the woman sitting in the sun on top of the boulder. She comes down to join us in the shade. Kim is from Canada, Iain asks about the tattoo on her ankle. She tells us it’s an inuksuk, the Canadian equivalent of a cairn, or trail marker. It’s a good tattoo. You’re never disappointed to see a trail marker. You know you’re on the right track, heading in the right direction. We pack up and pass out of the valley. The descent is faster than expected. Faster than Iain expected anyway. He disappears down hill, I trail behind, impersonating an old man with glass knees and walking sticks. We’ve done enough distance to call it a day but we don’t. Iain’s been given the location of a decent camp spot a short way up the Gillespie Pass. This will give us a head start on the climb tomorrow. We pick up heavy packs and start climbing. Iain disappears again, which is probably for the best. I’m not happy. Am I tired? Hungry? Dehydrated? Maybe it’s all three. The poles are annoying me. The climb is hard. I struggle forward, knowing each step forwards is one less I’ll have to take tomorrow. Iain stops to chat with everyone who comes down, which gives me time to catch up and say hello we before we move again. I am so close, so close to asking if we’re nearly there yet when Iain stops to tell me “I think we’re nearly there,” and then he carries on walking. I’m done. I’m ready to stop. Then, at last we come to a tent sized clearing beneath the trees, To a small meadow on the edge of the coldest stream so far. Iain stops to fill his water bladder and drops the clip seal. He chases the clip down the stream like a dog after a stick. It doesn’t matter how cold the water is, if he doesn’t have anything to carry it in, he’s in big trouble. The clip fills with water and sinks, slowing it down, allowing Iain to catch up and snatch it out of the water. Crisis averted. Once we’re set up, drying out tents, socks, boots Iain reveals another luxury item. A paper map. I can’t make sense of it. There are no roads, no settlements, no churches with spires, only vast ranges of emptiness. The Wilderness. As I rehydrate, eat and rest I recognise coming up higher was the right decision. We can get an early start in the morning and get up Gillespie Pass before the sun breaks over the valley. Iain has what he thinks is a bright idea. We could be on the trail earlier if we slimline breakfast. Forgo coffee and eat scrogging (trail mix to anyone outside of New Zealand). Iain gets the message from my face. I will not be skipping breakfast. I move to a compromise of tea instead of coffee and a promise to myself to get out of bed earlier.

The white noise babble of Gillespie Stream is a delightful sleeping aid. I wake up on the edge of the bush. The track only meters away. The climb doesn’t wait. Back on the track, heading straight up. The climb up to the tree line is steady. Along the ridge, still lined with snow is the first full view of Mount Awful. The sky beyond big, blue and free of cloud. I don’t know who named these mountains but I have time for them. The view behind stretches back to Siberia Stream. We start sidling up the next ridge, which is nice. And then I catch up with Iain who has stopped for a breather. Above him I can see why. “Oh fuck, what a shitter,” is my response to the vertical scramble up to the next ridge. After each ridge is claimed, another appears. There seems no end. The pass always another climb away. Light races down the opposite valley wall. The sun rushes over the mountain. At 8:46 the dawn breaks over us. In the tussock the crickets chirp louder than birds. Life is slowly waking up in the rapidly warming alpine air. We reach the scree, the snow. Packed ice lies in gullies that may never see the sun. Mountains curl away on either side, rising like waves, blocking the view beyond. We’re up. We’ve made the top of the pass, some 1600 meters up. “Have you seen this?” I ask Iain, gesturing vaguely to the landscape. We take in the view. The high peaks that tower over us, the steep drops down to the valley floors on either side.

This is magnificent. This doesn’t feel real. How did I get here? A year ago I would never have expected this. Any of it. I’m going up mountains with my pack. I remember struggling up Golden Cap on the South West Coast Path. Going up a 191 meter tall hill was hard. Now I’m struggling up things 8 times as high and then asking what’s next? The journey isn’t anywhere near it’s end. Everyone knows the rules. What goes up must come down. Poles are adjusted, sunscreen is applied. Iain disappears with speed, with confidence. The descent is mostly comfortable but when I hear Iain go “hmmm,” I know I’ve got a tricky section coming up. We meet our first trampers coming the other way half way down. They’re going up in full sun, and will come down the other side in full sun too. The Department of Conservation warnings about water become incredibly clear. Between the Young River down in the basin and the Gillespie stream on the other side, there’s nothing to drink. I’m glad Iain pushed for an early start and we got the grunt work done before the heat kicks in. The Young River begins as a thin strip of silver at the valley head. By the time we reach the valley floor the water is flowing deep, wide and fast. I fill up my water bottle. The river runs away down stream taking the trail along for the ride. We pass beautiful plunge pools and I’m feeling encouraged about my chances for a swim later. We drop in to the cool green of the bush. The river skims along the trail edge, sometimes babbling nearby, then roaring in a gorge far below. We reach Young Hut ahead of our schedule. We have the place to ourselves. I dig out my pan and stove in order to make the coffee I’d missed out on this morning. I prop myself up against the wall and being preparing crackers with cheese, chorizo and olives. “Would you eat of the floor at home?” asks Iain, seeing what I’m up to. “No, I guess I wouldn’t,” I say as I carry on undeterred. He doesn’t hesitate to take one of the offered crackers. Life on the trail is something else. Hygiene standards don’t so much drop as largely disappear altogether. The floor is probably clean enough to eat off, anything else that comes up with the cracker is a bonus. I haven’t been sick yet. 

After a long, restful break we’re off again. With the weather being so good, having carried the gear this far we’re committed to camping every night. The first half is a well graded track and we fly downstream. We reach the bridge crossing the the cascading waters of Stag Stream. We’re halfway, we’ll be there in no time. Thought neither of us have said anything, we’ve been caught by the curse. So often on a trail I find myself thinking “if it’s like this all the way it’ll be easy.” It is never ‘like this’ the whole way. The trail, for reasons known only to itself, collapses away. There’s a log crossing a stream which leaves little room for error. The trail narrow to a foot’s width clinging to the edge of the gorge. We’re back to hauling up tree roots and scrambling over rocks. Iain decides I need to move up to the front and set the pace. He thinks he’s pushed too hard. There’s no medal waiting at Young Forks Camp for coming in first so we slow down. Each rise and fall now sapping what’s left of our energy. The next climb met with ‘Oh why?” and “Who left that here?”. The  track drops again to the river. I can smell the cold of the water, you can feel it in the air. In the gap between trees ahead of us we can see the meadows of the valley floor. We’re close. We turn the corner to find a bridge over the North arm of the Young River. The sign points us up to the campsite where we have a shelter, a fire place and a toilet. What we also have is a long walk back down to the river. The turquoise pools of the upper river are gone. Now a shallow braid washes over algae strewn pebbles. A rinse is as good as it gets. In the golden light of the later afternoon we also find Young Forks Camp is paradise, if you’re a sandfly. Repellant has no impact. The only thing to do is cover up as much exposed skin as possible. I light the fire and the smoke seems to help with the sandflies but less with breathing. The best thing to do is get into the tent as quickly as possible, bringing as few flies with you when you pull the zip closed. 

In the morning I awake to what I mistake for rain falling on the tent. Sandflies are bumping between the inner and outer fly. That’s less of a problem than the handful flitting about inside. There’s no escape but to get out and get moving. Not that we do. We’ve got a short day ahead of us and a late pick up. There’s no rush. Eat a few more ginger nuts, drink a second coffee. Anything to reduce the pack weight. A black cloud hangs over the shelter table. My hands are bitten. I swat flies away from my face. We had planned to wait for the sun to dry out the tents but this is getting silly now. The irritation gets too much. The tents can dry later. Back on the river, where plunge pools glow blue and cascades foam white. The forest shines green, golden light dappling through the canopy. We chew through early miles. The rolling track well graded again. Iain and I slip into deep conversation. I pester him about his belief system, accepting things as far as I can before he says something that sounds like nonsense. Fortunately he doesn’t take offence at my facial expressions or tone of voice and keeps answering my bugging questions. We have a divide. Iain maintains nothing exists outside of the mind, I insist only the physical world is real. We have a fair bit of fun stretching ridiculous metaphors to their breaking point. We pass a huge crowd of people moving in towards Young Hut. “How busy was it last night?” they ask. We don’t know, we weren’t there but we saw almost no-one come in. We roll all the way down the Young to the Makarora where the track seems to disappear. Where ever the path once was, it isn’t there now. A landslip, a flood. Something has carried it away. A new route pushes up over the ridge. One final challenge. Up and over roots, sidling across slabs of rock. We turn around and go backwards down one step which doesn’t look anywhere near as big from below. Then we abseil several meters down a chain where finally we’re dumped back on what feels more like a track. The path passes alongside crisp green fields, lined with barbed wire and electric fences. The beech trees on the forest edge sit squat, sending out low branches, doing a solid impression of an old oak tree. The only thing preventing this scene from transporting me back to the English countryside of home are the snow capped mountains in the distance.

We’re quieter now. Tired. Ready to stop. Iain slumps down on the track side, legs splayed ahead of his bag. He munches through cheese and crackers, scroggin, ginger nuts. He tries to push more on me. We’ve got too much left over but I’d always take this over coming out hungry. We cross bridges over final streams. The path widens. More people appear in civilian clothes. Going nowhere far. We step on to the bridge over the Blue Stream, looking down in to the snow melt crystal clear blue green waters of the Blue Pools. I am so ready for this. We walk down to the pebble beach. I strip off, Iain doesn’t bother. He’s in the water before I’ve got my socks off. The cold now even less of a barrier than when we swam at Siberia Hut. I dive in after him, no hesitation. I try to swim but the cold sinks in fast, making movement hard. I step back out on to the pebble beach and the sun dries me almost instantly. We’ve got over an hour before Charlotte arrives to drive us back to Wanaka. We sit in the sun. Iain takes one of those so-called Nana naps. I swim again. Then it’s time to put our clothes back on, pull our packs on for one last time. As we reach the edge of the carpark the black Nissan Navarra pulls in. Perfect timing. The drive back takes us past the mouth of the Young Valley, then the Wilkin Valley. We cruise along the edge of Lake Wanaka, then Lake Hawea. Then I’m getting out of the car, opening the door on the van. And like that it’s over. I have just enough time to dry out the tent, have a shower and make commitments for ‘what next?’ before Iain and Charlotte arrive again to head out for dinner. 

Bistro Gentil has the look of a place I wouldn’t normally frequent. Out on the edge of town, vines grow over trellises, there’a gorgeous terrace, the glass windows stretch from floor to ceiling.  I’m unlikely to get my usual post-hike fayre of a burger as big as my head with a side of fries, and a pint of pale ale please. Still, I try to approach with an open mind. Not that it matters in the end. Upon entry Iain notices the wine vending machines he’s been selling to me over the last three days are out of action. I’m not worried, I’ll definitely have that beer. Iain on the other hand looks on the verge of collapse. The waitress explains that after the lockdown they were unable to safely operate a machine with lots of metal buttons that everyone was touching all the time. Since they were able to operate at full capacity again the wine dispensers simply wouldn’t turn on. In the end the establishment decided this wasn’t the place for the gimmick. I think they’re right, a tasting room would work better but having people bustling around at the back of the restaurant probably isn’t in keeping with the rest of the image. I turn my attention to the menu and I’m lost for choice. Wild shot venison carpaccio with all manner of fancy condiments to start. I go for a lamb dish as the main. As for desert there’s a salted caramel mousse that has earl grey gel as part of the whole and this I simply must try. The food is delicious. The company ain’t bad either. Out beyond the table I watch the sun disappear behind the distant mountains. I know they’re still calling. The weather is going to hold for at least two more days. I can’t help myself. I can’t stay away.

One response to “New Zealand: The Gillespie Pass

  1. Pingback: New Zealand: The Travers-Sabine Circuit | I Don't Have The Map·

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