I’ve been asked more than once what sport I’d do if I could only do one for the rest of my life. This is a difficult to question to answer. I rock climb, surf ski, snow ski, kite board, ride mountain bikes, cyclocross bikes, road bikes. I whitewater kayak, sea kayak, paddle outriggers, canoes and rafts. I play golf. I inline skate albeit rarely. I sometimes go caving and sometimes canyoning. I can snowboard, I have snow shoes, ice axes and crampons. I even have a stand up paddle board, and a surf board now that I think about it. I enjoy trail running, rogaines, I regularly compete at orienteering but my main sport to focus my competitive energy is adventure racing. If you’re wondering, I’m not a swimmer, that’s the result of kayaking gone wrong.
Now I can’t foresee a scenario where I’d be banished to only one sport, but to answer the question, if I had to choose just one sport to fulfil my need to be outside and active, it’d be tramping, also known as hiking or trekking. There are many things I love about walking around in the wilderness, the simplicity is one of them. Carrying everything I need on my back, drinking from streams, sleeping on the ground, cooking on fires when possible. I particularly like going ‘off track’ getting a map and making up my own trips following creeks and rivers, spurs and ridges, cutting through saddles, summiting peaks, seeing wonderful places in nature without a care in the world. It’s a basic life out there tramping.
Life revolves around breakfast in a stunning location, breaking camp and walking through the mountains for the day until its time to find a campsite, though sometimes camp comes early when you reach a spot that you know is a gem, you aren’t going to find anything better. I’ve even planned entire trips around an incredible spot I’d seen on a previous trip, “I’m going to come back here and camp one day”
It’s hard to beat a wilderness camp, pitch the tent, make your bed and prepare dinner. Maybe a campfire, maybe some star gazing, maybe an early night, whatever, it’s all good. My last thought each night is normally my morning coffee and what to look forward to the next day.
Such a trip is how I transitioned from 2019 into 2020. My wife Jodie and our three teenage children, joined our loyal partners in adventure, Mark and Wendy and their two teenage daughters. Our two families have been doing ambitious trips into the wilderness for a decade now, we can spin yarns for hours about our previous escapades.
Both families have always placed high value in raising our children in nature, we’re all qualified Outdoor Educators so we’re well aware of the positive outcomes. There are the obvious lessons that mother nature teaches by living in the outdoors, enduring the forces she can present, over coming challenge and adversity, reaping the benefits that one can feel from achieving extraordinary feats. We like to think of it as ‘getting out of coverage, out of wifi’. Don’t get me wrong, I love technology but my humble opinion is that it is overused. People are wasting to much time ‘liking’ stuff and commenting on things with their self appointed expert opinions. With millions of people online, the outdoors are practically empty.
We spent 7-days on an adventure over New Year and didn’t see one single person, not even a helicopter passed by.
In our modern world time races by. In the wilderness, on a multi day tramp, time goes at normal speed. A 3-hour hike to a saddle will take 3-hours, with effort. You can’t swipe and see what’s on the other side. The health benefits of wandering around in the hills with a pack on your back are plentiful, physically having a work out, mentally clearing the mind and if you’re a spiritual person, you likely find a sense of peace out there.
Our children will say that one overused line us parents joke about on our adventures is ‘where are all the other families?’.
In seriousness, where actually are they? Tramping is not an expensive sport. The options for world class trips in New Zealand are practically unlimited. You don’t need to wander far from a road end to be in wilderness, especially with small children. Yes, it requires some effort to go away, but one thing I know is that you never regret it. I also know that young kids are easier to look after in the outdoors, it’s a wonderland of play. If you want to live a fulfilling life it’s experiences that will create that. I’m afraid the day spent at the sales on Boxing Day won’t be remembered in your final days, but you may remember the time you climbed to the peak and watched the sunrise, or leapt into the ice cold crystal clear mountain pool.
The barriers to going into the hills tramping have been whittled away over decades. My passion for tramping started when I was a teenager in the 1980’s. My first pack had an external metal frame. My clothing was abrasive wool, my raincoat was thick PVC, I wore work boots. My billy was an old baked bean can with a piece of wire through it. On the rare occasions I used my cooker I was in fear of it exploding. I had an A-frame tent and slept on a piece of foam that the trampers of yesteryear thought was luxurious and said that such a mat showed that people were getting soft. I’d take potatoes, onions, dehydrated peas, curry powder and mince meat for dinner. Sweet tea and porridge for breakfast, cabin bread and sardines for lunch. Snacks were nuts and raisins, maybe a block of cooking chocolate. I can honestly say that for each day I was in the hills the food shop just bought more of the same stuff.
Now … we have a storm proof dome tent, air mattresses, super fast cookers, comfortable packs, breathable jackets. I’m grateful. Despite all the technological improvements, I don’t think our time in the mountains is significantly easier, the modern equipment just allows us to do more ambitious trips. I still find myself suffering and being challenged out there. I embrace the equipment we have access to and one of the biggest developments is freeze dried food. Made for astronauts, modified for the military, it became available to the public in the 80’s, and it tasted foul. In fact, it’s pretty been substandard food until quite recently. I had a friend who recently buried their dinner outside the hut it was so bad, thankfully it wasn’t Absolute Wilderness. I think Adventure Racers can take some credit for the vast improvements by demanding energy dense, healthy and great tasting meals. Hunters and trampers have gleefully appreciated the products.
It was through adventure racing that I became involved in the development of Absolute Wilderness meals for racing, training and family adventures.
Being able to carry ultra light super high quality food is amazing. Hey, I’ll admit I’m happy to eat 2-minute noodles with a can of tuna stirred in, but given the option to have a Beef Stroganoff, creamy beef and mushroom sauce with fettuccine pasta, followed by Apples and Creamed Rice for pudding, all by simply adding hot water, then I’m all for it. Perhaps a cup of mountain stream water to make fresh yoghurt on day five of your trip, locally grown boysenberries on honey sweetened yoghurt. What’s the saying? a no brainer.
I have discovered that quality food helps motivate and engage my children. They can take more ownership over what they eat on trips and look forward to meal times in the hills. Before the trip they select their own breakfast, dinner and desert meals. They then carry their own meals so they have the freedom to choose what meals they eat on each day, which is really important as good food on an adventure is needed for recovery and fuel, and for moral. Happy diners, happy trampers.
Our ’19 to 20’ trip concept was to circumnavigate the Arrowsmith Range and explore the Hakatere. While we had a plan it was really just an idea with the greater goal to simply spend time in the area. We figured if we had enough food and gear, we’d freestyle the route as we went, happy to pinball around. The loose plan was starting at the Potts River, we’d head over the Dogs Range and then over the Big Hill Range into the South Branch of the Ashburton River. From there we aimed to pass through the Wild Mans Brother Range, because it sounded so cool, then navigate through Boulder Col into the Rakaia. Then it was up the Rakaia a bit then crossing through Butler Saddle into the Lawrence River, then following that down to meet the Clyde Valley, from there it was up to McCoy Hut where our kayaks would be heli-dropped, enabling us to kayak down the Clyde, then the Rangitata returning to our starting point, 7 or 8-days later.
Once all the pre-trip logistics were completed and the last pies for a week eaten, we started hiking up the Potts River under a blue sky and hot sun. The heavy packs felt even heavier once we started to climb shortly into the trip. We had thought we’d cross the Dogs Range into Boundary Creek and camp the night but the lure of chilling out and swimming at Mystery Lake seemed like the better warm up. After a surprisingly cool night, everyone was up and about early to get going. First up was the Dogs Range. It was the last day of 2019 so we wanted to enjoy it. A blistering hot day with not a single tree in sight for shade. We chose a route that kept us near water and crossed into the Stumpy Stream and down to the valley floor to camp, New Years Eve.
That evening we assessed how we were tracking. The terrain was slower than the map suggested, added to that a party of nine doesn’t move as efficiently as a small group, plus the five teenage children weren’t attached to any particular route. We were aware there was a brief period of poor weather forecast. We knew we’d have minimal sleep by counting down into 2020.
We decided to drop the idea of going around the Arrowsmith Range. A fun route was spied to cross back over Big Hill Range into the upper Potts, and then over another pass into Shingly Stream and down to the Lawrence. We decided that there was plenty to see and explore on this re-route.
New Years Day was spent crossing into the Potts, it was fine day but the smoke from the Australia bush fires was thick and irritating. It was hard to believe it was from so far away, you could have easily been convinced the valley over was going up in smoke.
As we climbed back through the Big Hill Range we were all amazed how geologically different the route was given it was only a few km’s away from the pass we’d gone through the previous day, it really is a unique and dynamic area. We set up camp in the Potts River ready to cross into the Lawrence the next day. Just before bed time, severe wind gusts whipped through camp and blew the tents away, once retrieved we pitched them in lower ground, built rocks walls around them and crossed our fingers we didn’t get overnight heavy rain.
Crossing into the Lawrence was exciting. It was a beautiful climb to the pass, with regular Thar sitings. As we approached the pass, so did a thunder and lightening storm. With cracking in the sky, it got dark even though it was late morning, it started to rain. Despite the lightening being close, we opted to quickly scoot over the pass and drop down the scree into Shingly Stream.
We were relieved to be down out of the weather but had a waterfall to find our way around before we’d reach the Lawrence. We did so and breathed easier knowing the steep and technical terrain was now behind us. Then it cleared up, it became hot and sunny. It was a flash storm.
We opted to set up an early camp in the Lawrence and spend the afternoon enjoying the valley, checking out the huts, swimming, we were pleased to be on low ground after days traversing the ranges.
We got a look at Butler Saddle and agreed it was good we bypassed it. There was still plenty of snow on the south side and it would have taken time to get the nine of us through there.
After an idyllic bush camp riverside, a lovely campfire, the next day we wandered down the Lawrence to the Clyde. Our plan was to head up the Sinclair for the night, possibly to the rock bivouac. The Sinclair was another pretty valley and completely different to all the other valley’s we’d been in so far.
Now day six, it was time to reach McCoy Hut and prepare the kayaks. Another bluebird day provided awesome views of the glaciers and snow fields around the Garden of Eden and Allah.
Upon reaching the hut we were thankful to see our kayaks and food resupply, we spent a leisurely afternoon preparing the boats for the final day.
We knew very little about the Clyde River. We’d seen it on google earth before the trip and it looked fun. We’d studied the map and the gradient combined with the width of the valley, we knew that what we couldn’t paddle we could portage. As we walked up the valley we knew it was going to be a fast trip with plenty of whitewater, plus snow cold water.
The final morning we woke to dark ominous clouds banking up in the mountains, rain was threatening and there was a very strong wind howling down the valley. It was going to be fast trip.
We rigged loads into the boats, tidied the hut and had a team talk about the river safety and management before setting off. It was freezing cold. The river looked exciting and fun but I don’t think anyone was that eager to get paddling.
Once on the water the party zoomed off, we had three inflatable canoes with people and gear and two pack rafts. The first few km’s was quite full on, partly due to the speed and pitch of the whitewater, but mainly because of the cold and wind. Then it started to rain. We wisely decided to jump into Watchdog Hut for a few hours to allow the weather to settle.
After eating hot freeze dry meals and storing heat from the fire, we ventured outside to a rapidly improving day. The sun was out though the wind still blew, but it was a tail wind so that was all good.
The rest of the Clyde River was superb and far more enjoyable, the Lawrence added more water and soon after the Havelock River arrived to form the Rangitata. Then it was easy floating to the Potts River to complete the circuit.
What can happen in a week in the wilderness, a new year and a new decade. We all completed the trip weary, pleasantly tired, proud of what we’d accomplished, appreciative of the time in nature, glad to have escaped the madness for a while. Another brilliant trip, no regrets.
The simple life, but with extraordinary food thanks to Absolute Wilderness.