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Wild Time at Rabbit Pass

I do not know who Bledisloe was but I find myself cursing him under my breath. Mumbling “Bloody Bledisloe” repeatedly seems to take my mind off this endless climb. Like a cross between a tongue twister and a mantra, I hope this little game will somehow get me to the top. It is day three of my four-day trip over Rabbit Pass and I figured all the hard work was behind me. Then I came to Bledisloe Gorge or more accurately the unrelenting jungle trail which goes up and over the gorge.

Just an hour ago I had it made as I cruised along Ruth Flat, a gorgeous oasis of waterfalls and glaciated peaks. The guide warned me about the coming three hour climb, sure, and Gilligan and the Skipper were on a three hour tour. I am not the suffering type, so I started wondering how I came to be mumbling “Bloddy Blediloo Buddy Bedaboo Biddy Blegabue”.

This was my second trip to New Zealand. The first time I had walked several of the popular trails and they were fantastic; but I got the feeling after constantly being out numbered by Germans and Swedes that these trails were for foreign consumption and that somewhere out there was the real thing. Some place where a sign did not mark every hazard. This time I made up my mind to be more adventurous. I had friends who had walked over Rabbit Pass several years ago and their tales of heinous route finding and getting lost in a blizzard had squashed any flicker of desire I had to repeat their mistake. In looking at possible trips to tackle this time, I noticed that a professional guiding operation was now offering to take people over Rabbit Pass. The ideas grew on me, I might not be Reinhold Messner but I like to think I can trek with the best of them if I have someone there to keep me out of trouble. I was sold when I saw that even though the hiking was rated difficult, there was no need to carry a heavy pack since there were preplaced expedition style campsites with comfortable sleeping bags, tents and gourmet food already there. So sue me, I like adventure and I still like to be comfortable. I signed up.

Flying into Queenstown, I looked out at Mount Aspiring in the distance. This stunning pyramid is called the Matterhorn of the South. I knew the Rabbit Pass Trek passed under the shadow of that beautiful mountain. Looking at this world of glaciers and bottomless valleys, I wondered how I would ever survive in a place like that.

A one-hour shuttle bus ride over the Crown Range, New Zealand’s highest public road, brought me to Wanaka. Wanaka is more laid back than the tourist circus of the better known Queenstown. Sitting on the shore of a turquoise lake and surrounded by snow capped peaks, Wanaka has the feel of a tourist town before the tourists have found it.

The next morning the van picked me up at the very reasonable hour of ten am and I met my guide and the owner of Wild Walks, Whitney Thurlow. Whitney is an internationally qualified mountain guide and spends much of his time guiding clients on the technical climbing routes on Mount Cook and Mount Aspiring. I asked him why he started a guided trekking trip. ” Because it is there” he said in his best ersatz European accent. When I could get him to be serious, which was not often, he explained that no one else offered a true wilderness trek. Most guided walks were not really wilderness experiences at all, “it’s not really wilderness if there is no way you can possibly get lost, even without the guide” he said. Conversely there was plenty of adventure guiding high peaks but not everyone wants to deal with the possibility of falling into a crevasse or using crampons. ” Rabbit Pass is an adventure journey, not a scenic stroll and not an effort to subdue K2″.

We went to “Wild Walks Corporate World Headquarters” (Whitney’s’ lawn) for a quick check of our gear and to meet the other two clients for the trip, Janet and Steve. I was reassured by this quiet Canadian couple who looked as if they could run an Iron Man and look good doing it.

The mountains of New Zealand are so rough there are few places where roads can penetrate them. This means that most trips into the big mountains begin with a boat ride or a flight. In our case, we joined Paul Cooper of Southern Air for a quick flight to the head of the Wilkin Valley where our trip was to begin. I tried to concentrate on the view as the four passenger “Sky Wagon” (have to love that name) approached the tiny grass landing strip. In reality though my brain was having a hard time processing the blurred montage of cliffs, rock, trees and ice which was flashing by. We rolled to a stop at a place called Jumboland. It is a fitting name since everything here, the sky, the mountains, the rivers, all come in one size, Jumbo.

After a short walk, we arrived at a small hut where we were to spend the first night. We had the mandatory “cuppa” before we headed of to explore an amazing valley dotted with a series of three lakes. Whitney explained how the early explorer Charlie Douglas had named the peaks that loomed overhead. The lyric beauty of the names, Castor and Pollux, Apollo, Mercury, Juno and Vesta, fit this awesome landscape. Hanging glaciers calve off ice that tumbles down vertical rock walls, landing in Lakes Diana, Lucidus and Castalia. The hiking was rugged with frequent stream crossings. It was unnerving at first but grabbing each other’s pack straps for balance became routine, the backcountry version of holding your kid’s hand crossing a busy road. Only in this case I was the kid.

We got back to the hut, wet and tired. I realised my wisdom in going on this trip when Whitney magically produced the two things I wanted most, an industrial strength coffee and a pair of fluffy dry slippers. Here’s to roughing it!

Day 2 is the toughest day of the trip with over 2500 of climbing. The route, there is not any real trail, begins in lush Silver Beech forest carpeted with moss and ferns. As we climbed higher, the tall trees gave way to lower Ribbonwood and Coprosma which we were virtually tunnelling through. We reached the confines of Snowbridge Gorge and were treated to the sight of snow avalanches arching off the opposite wall and falling harmlessly into the gorge below us.

Topping out of the gorge we suddenly found ourselves in a large flat-bottomed valley covered in Giant Mountain Buttercups. Enormous Waterfalls fed by melting glaciers carved lines down the sidewalls of the valley. If there is a hiker heaven, this is it.

The lesson in travelling backcountry New Zealand seems to be that if the going is easy, then get ready, because it will not last long. After skipping along through the flowers, we came to the notorious Waterfall Face. The guidebooks all warn people of this area and for good reason. It is steep and exposed but with Whitney showing me every footstep, it really was no problem. I was glad for the help; this is no place to lose your way! Whitney was even kind enough to belay me with a rope when I got nervous. All the Wild Walks guides are trained mountain guides for people just like me. Janet and Steve ran around like a couple of mountain goats completely oblivious to the dangers in my imagination. I was beginning to hate them.
The descent into the Matukituki Valley (you get used to the Maori names) reinforced the adage that the hard part is not going up, it’s coming down. Tired legs carried me into the campsite that afternoon.

That evening as Whitney was teaching me the intricacies of toasting pompadoms on a gas flame, a huge block of ice pealed off the summit of a nearby peak. Like an enormous clap of thunder followed by low rumbling, the ice and snow fanned out across a massive rock face. As the debris piled up on a shelf directly across the valley Whitney smiled and said, “I knew there was a reason I didn’t put the tents over there”.

Day 3 began with the easiest walking of the trip. Hiking down the sandy braided river flats we simply walked down the river whenever there were obstacles on the banks. Ruth Flat is a huge amphitheatre dominated by Mount Fastness. It was here that I first heard those terrible words “Bledisloe Gorge”. The river gradually squeezed into a narrow chasm and we were forced higher and higher to pass over the barrier. This is such an active landscape the trail can change overnight. One section was totally wiped out by a landslide. Another portion of trail was blocked by, I guess you would call it a tree slide. Large areas of forest were a tangled mess where the earth had simply shifted. The going was tough and steep. Just when I had decided that the others should go ahead and leave me to die, the trail levelled out above the tree line. My anguish vanished with the spectacular views and the knowledge the final campsite was mercifully close.

Perched on top of a high cliff face, Aspiring Camp is like a vast tree house. The valley stretches out below while across the valley Mount Aspiring is perfectly framed by massive beech trees. That night I left the rain fly of my tent. I laid there in worn out bliss and went to sleep watching the stars pulse in the clear mountain air.

Day 4 began with a luxurious breakfast of pancakes, whipped cream and blueberries. Whitney encouraged us to eat as much as possible since today would be all down hill and we would “roll better”. After packing up we began the long descent down to Junction Flat. In this land any place that is flat is so unusual it gets its’ own name. Signs of civilisation began to appear in the form of Park signs and the trail became more defined. There was even a bridge, which we scoffed at as too civilised, preferring instead to wade across the river. I now seemed to fly down the trail. Perhaps I was in better shape after my four-day mission or maybe I was accelerating towards the nearest hot shower. In the middle of one last river crossing, I looked up to see a passenger van bouncing along the far shore. In my feral state of mind, it took a moment to realise that the trip was over.

It is only on reflection that I have come to know what Rabbit Pass meant to me. I was looking for a challenge, a personal Everest to point to and say; “I did that”. However, that goal now seems insignificant to what I really achieved. I saw a land that was alive, it moved and breathed, it had good moods and bad moods. This is a place where humans are insignificant. We saw no other people and the mountains are unchanged since Charlie Douglas first saw these astonishing peaks. I now know why he named them after gods.

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