We’ve left the coast for the Southern Alps, and for me, this is where the country really shines. I thought the North Island was great, but now the South Island has me gasping and pulling the car over with each new bend in the road. It’s honestly like living in a movie, with the scenery just slightly too grand to feel real.
Wanaka has been our base, the first place out here so far that I’ve felt I could live permanently. Fall seems like the best season to be here, with every tree around the lake changing color, and the golden hills and distant snow-covered ranges providing a stunning backdrop. With a reputation for being sport climbing heaven, and easy access to the mountains for alpine hiking, Wanaka was the perfect place for us to bounce between our two favorite pastimes. It’s really the perfect place for us in general, with Gary spending a lot of timing mooning over the perfect boulders and cliff faces, and me swooning over the foliage and impressive peaks.
Our first day in town we woke up to rain hitting the van ceiling in the middle of the night. The weather delayed climbing, but it also meant that we got to wake up to the first dusting of snow on the surrounding mountain tops, a pretty nice silver lining. Rather than wait out the storm, we decided to chase the sun, and headed to Aspiring National Park with our friend from the North Island, Alina, to hike to the Brewster Hut for the day.
The Department of Conservation has a reputation for inflating hiking times, so when we saw that a less than two mile hike was supposed to take three hours, we laughed. And then, we suffered for two hours and forty minutes. New Zealand seems to not really have heard of switchbacks, which means that we were lunging and pulling on tree roots to propel ourselves straight uphill. It was absolutely exhausting, but once we were out of the forest the views of the Alps went on for days. Following a scenic ridgeline through golden grasses we at last arrived at the little red Brewster Hut, an absolute charmer, and the perfect place to rest on the porch while taking it all in.
Once we caught our breath, we realized that Armstrong Peak looked like it was just right uphill, close enough to tempt us. After calculating how much daylight we had left, we decided to go for it, our plan for an easy little day hike turning into an epic. Two hours of lunging up loose scree past glaciers (glassy-urs, as the Kiwis say) and a couple false summits later, we were at the top. After a quick snack with a view, we had to turn around to scramble down, reaching the parking lot after dark, hungry and tired and happy.
Another detour from Wanaka was a night up in Mt. Cook National Park. Driving that morning we could barely see the highway through the fog, and the famous views of the mountains from Lake Pukaiki were nonexistent. We debated just turning around, but decided to at least drive in and hope the day improved. As we moved deeper into the park the fog began to lift, swirling orange and pink over the turquoise lake. As the sun rose, through the technicolor fog we saw glimpses of picture perfect Mount Cook in the distance, a totally surreal moment.
Being the hipster hikers that we are, we opted to do a day trip to the Ball Hut rather than the more popular Mueller Hut. As such, we were practically the only people on trail, walking in towards the snowy mountains alongside the massive, sediment-covered Tasman Glacier. I’ve always heard of native cultures referring to mountains as gods, and this was the first time I really understood. When we reached the little three-person hut, cradled by mountains on all sides, I practically wanted to fall to my knees. While Gary flirted with a falcon trying to capture the perfect photo, I lay on the edge of a cliff in the sunshine, taking in the views while listening to the glacier shifting below. The little crackles and moans and sighs drifting up felt like witnessing something sacred, like hearing the earth breathe, and I’m not sure I’ve ever felt quite so grateful and content.
Perhaps my favorite hike of the trip was up to the French Ridge Hut. We woke up in the morning to the first frost of the season, and after trying in vain to scrape ice off both the inside and outside of the van windows, Gary drove with his head out the window to a patch of sun to thaw out. The day was totally clear and sunny, but painfully cold, the message loud and clear that winter had arrived. Gary opted to stay in town and climb, so after breakfast I set off with three friends for the night. After 30 kilometers of rough road and several sketchy river fordings in a nearly defunct mini-van, we made it to the start of the hike.
The first half of the day was spent walking through a stunning valley, surrounded by countless waterfalls. As I picked my way across streams while walking through golden fields surrounded by snowy mountains, I felt like Julie Andrews, and had to stop myself from twirling through the meadow. After telling a crusty older local where we were heading, his only response was “You’ll live,” and I knew we were in for it. The hike ended with us racing daylight, rock climbing and pulling up on trees to slowly work our way uphill, making the Brewster Hut hike feel easy in comparison. After two hours of brutal uphill I finally made it up above the tree line, where I crawled slowly uphill for one more hour, past frozen tarns, inch by rocky, icy inch.
In the end, it was all worth it. I arrived crunching through snow patches to the hut just as the setting sun turned the surrounding mountains magenta. I kind of wanted to cry, the view was just so spectacular. The rest of the night was spent playing Monopoly Deal and chatting with our other hut mates, a group of kiwis who arrived in shorts and jandals an hour after I did, having completed the hike in about half the time it took me. This was also the best night sky of the trip, the stars and Milky Way made the cold trip to the outdoor toilet in the middle of the night worth it.
After the hike back out, I was incredibly sore the following day. Gary and I flailed up some walls for a morning, until we decided that we were maybe, actually, finally all climbed out. After a late lunch, despite my aching legs, we hiked up for the sunset at Isthmus Peak. The 5 mile slog uphill paid off in epic views of Lake Hawea and Lake Wanaka, the perfect way to end our trip.
It will be hard to leave, but after three weeks in the Wanaka area, it’s time. I’ve loved being able to spend so much time in places that make me remember how small I am. Despite feeling beat up and exhausted, we are rushing down to the Milford Sound to take advantage of a short window of nice weather. No rest for the weary just yet, but I really can’t complain.