Justine Tyerman upsets her old tramping mates… again!
My TBs (tramping boots) had a hissy fit – literally – at the prospect of being shackled to a pair of rectangular trays with spiked bottoms. It was not a pretty sight, steam pouring from their mouths, laces in disarray, hooks glowing red hot and lots of theatrical sole-stamping.
But I was eager to try new experiences, broaden my horizons, blaze new trails and get out of my comfort zone but the TBs were stuck in the mud with conservative blinkers on. For them, tramping was tramping and no self-respecting TB would accept a tacky tack-on to aid ambulation. The idea of being harnessed to snowshoes was the ultimate insult.
Their petulance was becoming tiresome but I had to remember they were well over 60 in boot-years and I needed to indulge them a little.
I said I was worried for their welfare – that they might suffocate in the deep snow at the top of the Remarkables. And that ‘raquettes à neige’- to give snowshoes their fancy French name – were a practical form of winter footwear with a fascinating history dating back five or six thousand years. I thought this might appeal to both their snobbery and strong sense of tradition and history. A flicker of interest.
“You know, when Similaun Man (aka Ötzi the Iceman) who lived 3300 years ago was discovered in the Ötztal Alps on the border between Austria and Italy, he was wearing what archaeologists actually believe were snowshoes,” I said as casually as I could. Quick as a flash they pointed out that they were already well-versed in deep snow having hiked in the Italian Alps last winter.
Then I played my ace card, a blatant bribe – in return for co-operation and goodwill, I would treat them to a wilderness hike up their favourite river, the Dart, with lashings of mud AND… a ride in a jet boat.
Hallelujah! A deal!
I wasn’t sure how they would react when the time came for them to be strapped into said snowshoes but I knew in their soul of soles, like me, they would relish being up in the mountains all day, at one or in their case at two, with the Great Outdoors.
And believe it or not, our snow-shoeing expedition up to Lake Alta near the summit of the Remarkables was one of the best days of their lives, they confided in me… much later.
As we climbed, the entire Wakatipu Basin unfolded below us like a 3D map, and across the valley, row upon row of mountains came into view, dwarfing Coronet Peak in the foreground. It was breath-taking.
With the TBs and their new snowshoe mates bonding surprisingly well, we soon left the chairlifts, skiers and snowboarders of the Remarkables Ski Field far behind and entered the white wilderness of the Lake Alta glacial cirque, where the sound of silence was absolute . . . apart from the muffled shuffle of our snowshoes in the fresh powder and the occasional squawk of a kea, New Zealand’s mountain parrot.
It was a surreal experience hiking straight uphill in the snow, crossing a frozen lake and munching lunch on a ledge just below the summit of a mountain I had worshipped from afar all my life. Double Cone and the jagged black rocks of the Remarkables towered above us, the reverse side of the iconic sawteeth seen from Queenstown. They have always held a quasi-mystical, sacred fascination for me and it was a pinch-myself moment to be up there, communing with the mountain-tops… not to mention having got there, sans chairlift, under my own and the TBs’ steam.
In fact the TBs were jolly good sports the whole day and, dare I say, even appreciated the ease of grip on the steeper terrain afforded by the spikes on the underside of the high-tech, light-weight snowshoes. They also enjoyed ribbing some Aussies who turned up wearing flimsy sand shoes and little else. I heard them guffawing uncharitably with some other TBs they were chatting to on our hike. The young couple had never been in snow before and our gem of a guide, Shaun from NZ Shoeshoe, kitted them out from toe to top without even batting an eye.
The TBs spent the night in the cosy drying room at the posh Crowne Plaza, hanging out with TBs and SBs (ski boots) from all round the world. Then early next morning guide Pam from Guided Walks NZ collected us and we headed up the side of Lake Wakatipu to Glenorchy.
Jetboating in Mount Aspiring National Park
As promised, we jumped in a Dart River jet boat and hooned 35km up the beautiful braided river. The TBs loved it when our cool young driver Daniel gunned the grunty twin Hamilton jet engines and spun the boat in a 360… Some of the passengers were green around the gills after five or six twirls on the 90-minute trip but I had a silly grin on my face the whole time and didn’t want it to ever end.
We were deep in the heart of the Mount Aspiring National Park and the southern reaches of the Main Divide, encircled by the magnificent mountain peaks of the Southern Alps, gleaming glaciers, frozen waterfalls and hanging valleys. My spiritual homeland. The park belongs to Te Waipounamu (The Place of Greenstone), a region granted UNESCO World Heritage status in 1990 in recognition of its outstanding natural beauty. Sir Peter Jackson put it firmly on the international tourism map when he filmed large chunks of his Lord of the Rings trilogy there.
Late morning, Pam appeared as if by magic on the edge of the river, carrying a pack laden with lunch goodies. We waved goodbye to Daniel, shimmied up a shingle bank and wandered off into the wilderness for the rest of the day. The walk is an off-track experience so the TBs were in their element, their soles singing as they trod the soft moss carpet in the pristine native red beech forest. They even got their heart’s desire, splashing through a few shallow streams with muddy verges.
It was late winter and the low-slung sun cast long shadows through the tall gaunt trees but the air was mild and felt like rose petals on my skin.
A cheeky South Island robin hopped onto on my day pack at lunchtime and left his calling card before helping himself to the pumpkin seeds in my sandwich while I was busy taking photos of exquisite Lake Sylvan.
The TBs thought that was a huge joke. I heard them mutter something about comeuppance and karmic backlash for the snowshoe episode.
After lunch we joined the DoC track which took us across a very swingy swing bridge over the Routeburn River to Sylvan Lake car park where Pam had left her vehicle before hiking through the forest to meet us on the riverbank. Mystery solved.
There’s no snoozing on the 46km road from Glenorchy back to Queenstown. Rated one of the Top Ten scenic drives in the world by both Conde Naste and Lonely Planet, it’s a knock-out at any time of the year but especially after fresh snow. The view of Lake Wakatipu and the mountains from Bennett’s Bluff Lookout is among the most photographed in New Zealand. It’s jaw-dropping.
The TBs had excelled themselves so I gave them the next day off and took the SBs up to Coronet Peak. Bad move as it turns out. The TBs don’t like being side-lined. But that’s another story…
Dart River Jet is the only operator permitted on the Dart River, and Guided Walks NZ is the only company permitted access to the Ultimate Nature Experience wilderness area.
Skis, snowboards, snowshoes and outdoor sports gear for all seasons: Outside Sports has shops in Queenstown and Wanaka so you can rent gear from one shop and return it to the other.