“Do you have plans for Queen’s Birthday weekend?” Carrie asked me, just after NZ moved to covid19 level 2. “Want to go on a tramp?”
Did I ever! The last time I was out on an overnight excursion was months ago, in that other lifetime of normality we had before The Pandemic.
NZ celebrates the Queen of England’s birthday the first weekend in June, always on a Monday because that’s much more convenient than her actual birthday. I feel a bit silly celebrating the monarch of England’s birthday as an American, but whatever, it’s a good three-day weekend mid-winter. Long live the Queen.
Because it’s winter, we planned two weekends and three tramps. Three different locations in case we had to switch around to miss the rain/snow/wind, and two different weekends in case the first one was entirely not suitable. It’s an insurance formula that works well for winter.
By principle, I do not check the weather maps for the weekend until Thursday. I hate looking at them early, waffling on a decision, and having to look at them and make a possibly entirely new decision on new information again later in the week. But this time I broke my rule and looked on Wednesday, and the weather looked calm and dry over almost the whole south island for most of the weekend. What luck! The forecast held, and on Saturday morning we launched up to hike Plan Number One: Mole Tops in the Nelson Lakes region. It’s a bit too far to drive for just an overnight, but having two nights out made it worth it.
Here’s our hiking route: Pink is the first day, hike up the forested ridge to the alpine saddle, then stay at Mole hut a little way back down the creek valley. Day two hike up to Mole tops and have an explore, then walk down to Tiraumea Hut for the night. Day three walk over to Durville Hut at Lake Rotoroa, where Carrie’s husband would meet us with his dad’s boat and bring us back around to where we left the car. Winter days are short, same as in NY winter, but the distances were achievable with the daylight available.
The first bit of the walk was in lovely mossy beech forest, with old man’s beard lichen clinging to the branches as we got nearer the alpine zone. It was probably 10 C, perfect temperature for climbing, and our conversation ranged over all the important topics; relationships, kids, work, and the best color for a car.
There was no wind when we popped out of the tree line and looked down at the hut in the valley below, so we loitered up there, brewed a cup of tea, and basked in the sun.
As we turned down the valley, the shaded bits had hard frosty ground, and we expected the hut to be in a cold pocket near the creek. But whoever situated this little hut had winter sun in mind–it caught the last of the afternoon’s warmth through it’s window and when we poked out heads inside it was toasty warm. Unfortunately, it was also occupied by three sleeping bags, and there were only 4 bunks. Shucks. We amused ourselves for a few minutes trying to guess the nature of the party who would return there that night–there were foot traps hanging in the porch, but also a bag of Hummingbird coffee, and a couple Harrington’s pilsners stashed below the step. Hunters, but not bogans, it seemed.
Fortunately we had a tent, so we set it up in a little flat space and started our dinner in the hut before the occupants returned. As hunters, we expected them back after dark, but they surprised us by trooping it around 5:00, having seen no animals on the tops all day. They were very civil though, and good company, but the hut had no extra space and we soon retreated to the warmth of the sleeping bags in the tent, a round of Quiddler by headlamps, and an early sleep.
It was a clear frosty night, but we stayed reasonably warm and waited to get up until the hunters had vacated the hut, so we could us it for breakfast. Taking down a frosty tent is cold-finger business, so we were relieved to climb back up to the warmth of the morning sun.
We left most of our gear at the saddle and climbed with light packs up to the alpine tops. Once you climb up it’s remarkably easy going, with low grass and tiny alpine herbs to walk on. With no wind and full sun it’s like strolling along on the roof of the world.
We kept remarking how dazzlingly lucky we were with the weather. Could have just as easily been blowing a gale and driving snow and ice….but we got lucky.
The tops there are like a big undulating plateau, pocked by tarns, with the mountains drizzling off in steep scree runs on the western side.
Despite the sun’s warmth, the tarns were iced over pretty solidly and they weren’t melting at all. Not strong enough ice to walk on, but still solid enough to make the watery world underneath absolutely still. It was so clear that I watched a tadpole wriggling along, and wondered how it could be so seemingly energetic in such cold water!
We peaked through a window in the ridge at the mountains beyond, looking up the Durville valley to the south and planning future routes.
Sometimes the ridgelines are narrow and brittle with sketchy drop on both sides, but we found a simple scramble route up to an old trig point where we sat and observed other people walking about below us. It was remarkably busy up there; at least 9 other people besides us were striding around, taking advantage of the primo weekend.
We finally left the tops in mid afternoon, with just enough time to walk down to Tiraumea Hut before dark.
The frost was still crinkly hard on the low pockets of the clearing and the mist was creeping in, but when we opened the door to a very tidy little hut with several inviting stacks of dry kindling left by previous considerate trampers. We spread out the wet tent to dry, cranked the fire, and played a round of Quiddler after dinner.
I SHOULD have taken a picture of the Durville hut boat dock with Carrie’s husband, sister in law, and nephews there to meet us the next day at noon. Definitely boat taxi service with a smile. Also smiling up at us from the clear lake waters under the dock were half a dozen gigantic eels, and we shuttered to think that we had jumped in this same water just this past February after our Blue Lake walk. No temptation to do that this time!
The wilderness is a comforting reminder. A virus might run through most of the world’s population, the economies of the world may have groaned to a halt, and the fabric of human society may be ripping, but the mountains still rise, the moon still waxes, and the trees still grow moss-laden in the forest.