It was our second last day in Queenstown, and as we no longer had a car we decided to check out one of the walks closer to town. A guy at the car rental company had suggested the mountain overlooking Queenstown, Ben Lomond, as it provides excellent views of it’s surrounds. We decided to catch the gondola up the first section, as it was a few hundred meters from our accomodation and it meant we could skip an annoying forest walk through pine trees. Once off the gondola, the track starts up past the luge area and for a short time, makes its way through Douglas fir and mountain beech forest. This is the very last of the shade for the remainder of the track, and should be noted when walking in hot weather.
Once out of the trees, the track is opens up to alpine tussocks and grasslands. We noted the large amount of wilding trees that are an introduced species in NZ and pose a threat to native flora. We passed some walkers who were stopping to uproot any evidence of these pests, with small tracts of land along the way allocated to various school groups and organisations who then have the job of eradicating wilding trees in that area.
The track climbs steadily up to a saddle at 1300m between Bowen Peak and Ben Lomond, following the ridgeline. We stopped at the saddle for a quick refuel, joined by various other groups of walkers. From where we sat, we could see just how popular the walk is, with people visible on the summit, others descending and even more making their way up. After admiring the views from the saddle, we then made to tackle the steepest part of the climb.
This last part of the track to the summit climbs very steeply, and while predominantly a dusty trail it can be rocky in places-though nothing challenging. The last part of the walk curves up behind the peak, before popping out on top at 1748m. There were plenty of other people on the top, so we made our way to a small spur for our lunch, and to take in the views of Queenstown, Lake Wakatipu, the Remarkables, Moke Lake and the Southern Alps. There’s a dial at the top that points out each of these sights and gives their coordinates.
We mingled with some more curious Kea parrots before making short work of the hike back down, ready for some luge action.
All up 10.8kms in 3hours and 20 minutes with 1031m ascent.
Having left the coast, we decided to head further south to go and check out Milford Sound. We were still keen to do another overnighter somewhere in the area, and after a bit of researching we decided to check out Green Lake.
We drove down to Te Anau, and purchased our hut ticket from the visitors centre before driving further south for an hour to reach Lake Monowai, near the town of Monowai. The start of the track is well-signposted and can be found just before reaching Lake Monowai, with room for a couple of cars to park.
The beginning of the track is a nice, easy walk through the forest that is similar to certain areas of SW Tassie. We stopped briefly to check out a small bird that was standing very upright and was hopping fearlessly around us; I later found out that it was a South Island Robin, which are know to be very friendly and have an unusual upright posture. Before long the track starts to climb, and we passed a few walkers that were heading back down, as well as a couple who were also on their way up. To my surprise, there were certain sections that were pretty boggy, even after a solid week of warm weather. We reached a small creek after 8.2kms in 2hours and 20min, that provided a good spot for a snack and a refill. Shortly after, we left the forest and crossed a grassy plain- from here, the track climbs a bit more before reaching the highest point and dropping back down along the shore of Green Lake. By this stage we were getting pretty tired, and keen to reach the hut.
From the highest point it took a further 50 minutes to reach the hut on the northern shore of the lake, and we were welcomed by a Swiss student who was spending a few days up there to study for some upcoming exams. After a quick swim to cool down, we set ourselves up inside and spent the rest of the afternoon chatting and taking photos. Later on we were joined by the two we passed earlier on that day, a Canadian girl who had invited her father over to NZ while she was studying there. Just before dark, the mist came over the mountains from the west and completely blanketed the lake, transforming the place into something from a horror movie. The hut itself was really well set up, with enough room for about 10 people, a good-sized open area and the mattresses are comfortable. There is also a woodheater for the colder months, as well as a toilet and woodshed out the back.
On the way back down I decided to check out a smallish lake just off the track; to do so, I thought the best way to get to it would be to follow it’s outlet creek up from the main track (Creek1 on GPS track). This creek can be found just before entering the grassy area if you are walking towards the hut. The first part was a bit of a scrub bash through some old trees, but once I was out of the forest it was an easy walk straight up to the lake. Emily had decided not to come check out the lake, and instead sat by our packs. When I returned she told me that she had been visited by a stoat, a small weasel-like animal that was introduced to NZ to help control the rabbit population. Unfortunately, they are now a big problem as they are known to eat the eggs of nesting birds.
We then walked straight back to the car and continued back up to Te Anau and onto the next part of the trip.
On the way up: 12.4kms in 4 hours and 20 minutes.
The way back with a small detour: 13.3kms in 4hours and 20 minutes.
Having spent a night in the mountains at 1465m, we decided to head back down towards the coast. We stopped at one of the local outdoor stores in Wanaka and got chatting with the owners, mentioning to them that we were heading west. They were happy to share some good walking tracks in the Jackson Bay area; they also warned us of the sand flies and managed to sell Emily a very flattering mesh headnet.
After driving for a couple of hours though the impressive Haast Pass, we reached the coast and headed south towards Jackson Bay. We had decided to camp somewhere along the Jackson River and found a pretty nice spot about 10 minutes along the Jackson River Road. The sunset that night was pretty spectacular, but the thousands of sandflies were a good enough reason to stay in the van, which was home to only a few hundred…if ever in the area, some tips to avoid bites are to cover up and use insect repellant. Additionally, avoid dark clothing as sandflies are attracted to it-as we didn’t know any of this at the time, Emily suffered countless bites all over her legs.
The next morning we were up early and heading back down the road to the start of the Lake Ellery walk. This is only a very short walk (2.9km return), but follows a nice track through the forest up to the lake and seems to be a pretty good spot for trout fishing. We then rejoined the Haast-Jackson Bay Rd and followed it almost to the end.
The start of the Smoothwater Bay track is sign posted next to the highway and has a number of car carparking spots on the opposite side of the road. The track initially climbs through thick forest before dropping back down along the bank of a small creek. After about an hour you will reach a small creek that needs to be traversed and 5 minutes later you will reach the Smoothwater Bay River. Take a right to continue down along the banks of the river and out to Smoothwater Bay. We then made our way back to the car and to a small fish and chip shop in Jackson Called called The Cray Pot which is highly recommended.
Our first overnight walk in New Zealand was going to be somewhere in the Mt Aspiring National Park, and we eventually decided on the French Ridge Hut. You can access this hut in two ways; option 1 is to follow the Matukituki Valley for about 14kms before heading straight up out valley, while the 2nd option is to get a helicopter to Colin Todd Hut (the base for climbing Mt Aspiring) and traversing the Bonar Glacier before descent to French Ridge. Having never done any mountaineering and being on a student wage, we chose option 1.
The track starts off by following the Matukituki River through extensive farmland that is full of sheep and cows, both of which were raising young and were a constant source of excitement for Emily. This part of the walk is easy going and has little change in elevation, following the flat valley through the mountains. After 8.8kms and two hours of walking, we reached the Aspiring Hut, where we had a quick snack and chatted with the warden. It is essential that you purchase a NZAC pass so that you can stay at the the French Ridge Hut; these are $25 per person and can be bought from the Mt Aspiring National Park Visitor Centre in the nearby town of Wanaka, or you can pay the warden directly if you are carrying cash.
From here the track begins to wind its way up into the forest and over a couple of rivers, with the help of two suspension bridges. It is then back down by the river and across Shovel and Pearl Flats, which are known avalanche paths and need to be traversed quickly. One hour and fifteen minutes after leaving the Aspiring Hut, we reached another choice point. The warden had mentioned that we can save about 20 minutes of walking by fording the river, rather than walking further upstream and taking a suspension bridge across. Given the water level seemed safe enough and we were happy to cool off, we waded our way across the river and towards the track on the other side. In hindsight, we should have taken our boots off and crossed in our camp shoes, but we were fooled by the first section of river which was significantly shallower than the other side.
The next part of the walk we knew would be the most challenging; from the valley it’s an almost vertical path straight up and many sections were not far off of this description. Initially, you climb up through beech forest that has a number of exposed roots and smaller shrubs that are useful foot and handholds. Once you are out of the tree line, the climbing doesn’t get much easier and you have the added warmth from the sun. The view from here is well worth the slog, and looking back down at the valley floor it is hard to believe that only an hour or so ago you were down there. As you pass across French Ridge, there is a small break in elevation gain as well as a number of small tarns that could be used if water levels are low.
The last climb seems to go on forever but eventually you spot the toilet, and the hut is only over the next little bump. We had made pretty good time on the way up; 1hour and 50 minutes with an ascent of 988m in a distance of 2.6kms. We were told that most people take between 2 and 3 hours.
We then spent the rest of the afternoon drying our wet and sweaty clothes and admiring the local group of Kea that hang around the hut. It is wise not to leave anything outside of the hut, as the Kea will almost certainly take interest; we had heard stories of Kea flying away with boots and keys. Later that night we were joined by a group of three people that had come down from Collin Todd Hut after spending 7 days learning how to ice climb.
We left early the next morning as we wanted to leave the mountains and head towards the West Coast.
Day 1: All up; 17.2kms in 5 hours and 53 minutes with 1340m ascent.
Day 2: Back to the carpark in 4 hours and 29 minutes with very few breaks and sore knees.
Getting there: From Wanaka, follow Mt Aspiring Road all the way to the end. Note that the last 30 minutes of driving is on a very corrugated dirt road with a number of small creeks that need to be traversed. We had a 2WD Toyota van which had enough clearance to pass safely, but anything lower might have some trouble. The base is rocky and therefore there is very little chance of getting bogged. Would not recommend crossing after heavy rain or snowmelt unless you had a 4WD.