by Hank Leukart
April 11, 2016
Friends in high places
Forming a fellowship while hiking over four mountain passes in New Zealand’s Arthur’s Pass National Park.
A hiker looks at Cronin Glacier above Whitehorn Pass in Arthur’s Pass National Park, New Zealand.
OKITIKA, New Zealand — I’m standing on the side of New Zealand’s State Highway 7 after packrafting the Waiau River, completely out of food and still wearing a flotation vest — I look so Back to the Future — when a camper van pulls up next to me. I’m half expecting the driver to be a teenage bully and yell out, “Get a load of this guy’s life preserver! Dork thinks he’s gonna drown!”
Instead, a 27-year-old woman with denim shorts and long, curly hair, asks with a thick French accent, “Where you’re going?” I’m in a strange situation: though each stage of my trip normally ends at a food drop I’ve pre-arranged, I paddled longer on the Waiau River than originally planned, leaving me stranded on the highway without food. After explaining my predicament, the French woman, whose name is Sophia, drives me to nearby Hanmer Springs, where we decide to have dinner together at the excellent Coriander’s Indian restaurant. Sophia tells me that she’s a lawyer living in Paris on a sabbatical, and I, of course, explain that I’m hiking and paddling a continuous path across the island.
“What an adventure! I’ve been wanting to try hiking to some hot springs in nature,” she hints. When I tell her that I know of some hot springs adjacent to the location of my as-yet-unretrieved Stage 4 food drop, she offers to drive me to the food drop as long as we spend the rest of the day relaxing in the hot pools. I feel a pang of guilt about interrupting my hiking and paddling trip to ride in a car and retrieve my food, but I knew from the beginning of my trip that I would inevitably encounter some unforeseen logistical issues with at least one of the nine food drops on my 1,300-kilometer path. I always told myself that I’d be allowed to use motorized transportation to resolve logistical issues, as long as I returned afterward to the exact point on my route from which I departed to continue hiking and paddling.
The next day, after retrieving the food, Sophia and I spend a couple hours relaxing in the river, alternating between the hot springs and cold streams. While we swim, Sophia tells me that she had always hoped to work as a lawyer who championed social justice causes, but instead fell into a job after university practicing contract law. After five years working, she felt exhausted, so she decided to try broadening her experiences in New Zealand.
“I’d really like to try hiking with you, because I’ve never done backpacking like that before,” she says. “We should meet again.”
New Zealand’s evil sandflies, apparently totally indifferent to the pleasures of spending a day lounging in a river with an intelligent French woman, soon start attacking us relentlessly, forcing a speedy return to Hanmer Springs. In the evening, we drink beers and — in keeping with my trip’s ongoing, unintentional Kevin Costner theme — we watch Field of Dreams, which is airing on New Zealand’s SkyTV. For future reference: Field of Dreams, on every level, is utterly incomprehensible to even the smartest French girls.
In the morning, resupplied with a mouthwatering new stash of food, I return to my hitchhiking point and walk toward Hope-Kiwi Lodge and Harper Pass. I speed 35 kilometers through rolling farmland without difficulty, though, during the last kilometer, I manage to soak myself in mud by falling face first in a deep marsh in the dark, just minutes before reaching Hope-Kiwi. Nevertheless, at the hut, I’m happy to discover 60-year-old New Zealander Henk, one of my hiking buddies from the previous stage. He tells me that he, too, took some rest days; he visited his wife and three daughters, but, strangely, didn’t watch SkyTV’s airing of Field of Dreams with them. He says that one of his daughters is on the verge of having her second child, but he has dreamed of completing the Te Araroa trail for years.
“There’s never a convenient time to do something like this,” he says. “As soon as the baby is born, I’ll take a break to go back and visit her. She understands.”
Henk and I travel together for the next two days, battling swarms of nasty sandflies at glorious Lake Sumner, discussing backcountry cooking strategies, and beating the long section from Hurunui Hut to Locke Stream Hut over Harper Pass in just nine hours. Slowly but surely, the two of us are getting as strong as the super-fit Abercrombies from the Richmond Range. Henk and I separate again when I start packrafting the Taramakau River, though I abort my paddle after only four kilometers, when it becomes clear that the river’s water level is too low to make reasonably-fast progress.
Sixteen kilometers later, at the Otira Stagecoach Hotel, I retrieve my next food drop and meet up with my “logistics team”: two Christchurch-based friends, Brittany and Andy, whose apartment I have been using to mail unwanted gear. (They received a box with everything that Jana eliminated in the Great St. Arnaud Weight Reduction.) I’m still in awe that Brittany — a 25-year old Kiwi engineer with a fantastic sense of adventure — and I have reunited; after all, I met her and her family seven years ago, while my brother and I were hiking the Torres del Paine Circuit in Chilean Patagonia. This is our first meeting since that spectacular adventure, but our friendship still feels effortless. After she and her equally fun-loving boyfriend Andy helped validate my adventure route in Christchurch before I set off, the three of us decided to try to arrange a couple weekends to hike together.
“We’re going to feed you!” Brittany announces, knowing that I’ve been mostly subsisting on freeze-dried meals for the past four weeks. So, after we all take turns riding around on a penny-farthing — the hotel has a lot props lying around in service of its frontier theme — we begin the steep, 1000-meter climb to Kelly Saddle and over a plateau in the Kelly Range, carrying a kilogram of cheese, a frying pan, and pancake batter. Though this route normally gives hikers 360-degree views of the Kelly Range, it’s raining and fogged-in when we reach the huge tarn (mountain lake) at the top. The tarn is so big and our visibility is so limited that it looks like we’re standing on the shore of an ocean, stretching toward the clouds, to infinity.
“If you like fog, have we got the place for you!” Andy frowns. But, his mood lightens as he practices some ninja-like moves to show off his impressive range of mobility in newly purchased, expensive overtrou from a trip to Japan.
Brittany sighs. “Usually, we always hike in shorts here in New Zealand.”
Increasing wind gusts begin pelting rain at us, so we head down to the Taipo River valley as quickly as we can. The plateau is covered in snowgrass, which gets extremely slippery when wet, and I become the butt of Brittany and Andy’s jokes repeatedly as I slip and fall on the grass on the way down. When we reach Dillon Homestead Hut at the bottom, we encounter a pair of hunters heading out for a night hunt.
“Are you going to bring back dinner for us?” I smile.
“We already have some meat for you,” one of the hunters says, disappearing and returning with a couple large venison steaks. We’re all surprised, but thrilled. Andy gets to work making risotto, and I grab the frying pan and some oil to cook the venison. Soon, we’re eating a tasty risotto-venison stew, one of the best meals I’ve eaten so far in New Zealand. And, as even more proof of our fated friendship, Brittany reveals that she has brought a board game called Love Letter. The three of us play until, late in the evening, we’re too tired to keep our eyes open.
After a scrumptious pancake and bacon breakfast the next morning, Brittany, Andy, and I say goodbye; they have to go back to their jobs the next day, but we plan to hike again together later in my trip. I continue, alone, up the Taipo River valley toward Harman Pass. By now, I’ve managed to download new music to my iPhone, but, nevertheless, I still start most days by listening to the Dances with Wolves soundtrack from start to finish. It has become a tradition and the definitive musical theme for my journey.
Afterward, I listen to an audiobook: the first volume of The Lord of the Rings, The Fellowship of the Ring. Since the book is about adventurers hiking across a nearly unconquerable landscape, it’s a perfect companion for my hike up the Taipo River, which requires route-finding around enormous boulders and a bunch of river crossings. Three-wires (New Zealand’s trademark floorless bridges) and cable cars sometimes aid the crossings, but, usually, I have to spend time searching for safe places to walk across the river. When, in the book, Frodo and his friends are nearly suffocated by the dense Old Forest and later almost drowned while trying to ford the River Bruinen, I can’t help but identify with them.
By the time I’ve walked the 18 kilometers to Julia Hut, rain is pouring down, and I end up stuck in the hut for the 36 hours with nothing to do except eat trail mix, listen to The Lord of the Rings, and dream about my late father and very-much-alive youngest sister eating peanut butter and jelly sandwiches in a kitchen together.
Eventually, the rain stops, and I climb up the 900-meters of elevation to the Ariels Tarns at the top of Harman Pass. When I reach the summit, the sky is so clear that I can see for many kilometers down the Taipo River valley and to the top of snow-covered Whitehorn Pass, my project for tomorrow. Expecting a windy evening at this high elevation, I set up my tent behind a wall of rocks and nestle into my sleeping bag, thrilled with my luck to be spending a night at the top of the pass in such excellent weather.
At sunrise, however, I peek out of my tent and discover that fog completely covers the mountain tops, allowing less than three meters of visibility. My research on Whitehorn Pass made it clear that hikers shouldn’t attempt to cross the unmarked Pass’s permanent ice and snow fields in low visibility weather, due to the risk of hidden crevasses and drop-offs, so I fall back asleep.
“I think that’s a person in a tent right there!” I hear as I wake up, pop my head out of the tent’s rainfly, and see five people gathered around my tent door: 70-year old New Zealander Stu, his 32-year-old daughter Julia, 24-year-old Raphaël & his friend Charlotte from the French alps, and 27-year-old Alain, a Parisian who met Raphaël and Charlotte on another hike, forming a French Trio.
“I’m still lying here because there’s no visibility,” I explain, a bit embarrassed that I’m still in my tent at 11 AM.
“It’s about to clear up,” Stu says. “You should join us.” I explain that there’s no way I can break down my camp fast enough to join them, so they continue without me.
“I’ll try to catch up,” I yell. Within 45 minutes, the fog has nearly cleared, visibility is perfect, and I’m hiking over melting snow and ice fields to the top of Whitehorn Pass. I can clearly see crevasses under some of the snow shelfs, which is unnerving, since I’m not hiking with any technical mountaineering gear. Nevertheless, I continue forward, doing my best to carefully map out a path to the top that looks well-worn and traverses the thickest sections of the snow fields. Meanwhile, I coincidentally find myself listening to the part of The Lord of the Rings in which the Fellowship is foiled by snow as they attempt to cross the Misty Mountains. I couldn’t be listening to a more fitting book.
When I reach the top of Whitehorn, I find Stu and Julia, who are taking a snack break and enjoying the overhead views of Cronin Glacier before tackling the long trip down to Park Morpeth Hut. I’m astounded that 70-year-old Stu is traversing the Three Passes, one of the most challenging marked trails in New Zealand, but Julia tells me that he has been hiking in New Zealand for decades. Julia also mentions that she has been feeling ill, but she didn’t want to cancel this adventure with her dad. Kiwis are tough.
It’s a long, five-hour trek down Cronin Stream to Park Morpeth Hut, and Stu and Julia leave me behind, because, well, 70-year-old Kiwi men can hike faster than me. The route isn’t obvious; I end up crossing the river a bunch of times, climbing onto terraces to avoid sections of truck-sized boulders, and inching nervously below steep scree slopes where it’s clear that unstable, rocky mountainsides have slipped down into the water. (Advice: Stay on the river’s true left — it’s nearly always easier than the opposite side — until seeing the orange marker, 1.6 kilometers away from Park Morpeth Hut, before the river drops into a deep gorge.)
“The weather report predicts lots of rain again tomorrow,” Julia announces, when I finally reach Park Morpeth Hut. She points to a weather radio. I sigh.
But, being trapped in a 15-square-meter (150-square-foot) room with five strangers for 24 hours is the fastest way to make close friends. Raphaël, Charlotte, Alain, Julia, and I spend the day playing Hearts, and though the competition is fierce, Alain wins by an almost 30-point margin. As we play, Raphaël tells me that he came to New Zealand 18 months ago with his girlfriend, and they worked as fruit pickers to support themselves until they broke up. Raphaël decided to spend his last two months hiking the island’s most epic backpacking trips, and he recently invited Charlotte, a friend from university, to join him.
Raphaël and I are amazed by Stu, and we can’t stop asking him questions about New Zealand’s routes and terrain, all of which he can answer correctly and from memory, without ever referencing a topographical map. He’s like an Kiwi Oracle.
In the late afternoon, the weather clears, and we all head down to the nearby river to enjoy the sun. Charlotte, unexpectedly, runs into one of the streams and stands, waist-deep, in the freezing water.
“It feels good on my legs,” she yells.
Raphaël convinces Charlotte, Alain, and me to take a side trip up a nearby mountain to take advantage of the stellar afternoon weather. Mountain-goat-like Raphaël speeds ahead of us, so I spend much of the climb talking to Charlotte, who tells me that, in addition to having worked as a mountain guide in the Alps and a horse wrangler in Canada, she once built a raft out of milk bottles to navigate down a river. I’m impressed. I explain how I discovered and became obsessed with packrafting while in Alaska, which eventually led to my hiking and packrafting trip across New Zealand.
“I’ve never felt like any of my trips were adventurous enough, until now,” I tell her. “I wanted to do something really exciting and grand, and now, I’m finally getting to do it. It’s amazing.”
“You’re a great adventurer,” she says. “I’ve always wanted to go to Alaska. And to California. And everywhere. I have a lot of decisions to make. I think too much when I hike.”
“’All that is gold does not glitter, and not all those who wander are lost,’” I say. “Sorry. I’ve been listening to Lord of the Rings.”
The slope we’re climbing turns out to be significantly steeper than we expected, and there’s a particularly hairy climbing section which results in me yelling expletives to anyone who will listen. But, when we reach the top, the view of the rugged, green mountains above silvery Wilberforce River valley leaves all of us speechless.
In the evening, we eat dinner together again in the hut. “I’m a little sad that the weather will be good again tomorrow,” I say. “We’ll have to leave our hut.” As I lie in my sleeping bag at night, listening to some more Lord of the Rings, I hear Samwise Gamgee’s voice: “You can trust us to stick to you through thick and thin — to the bitter end. And you can trust us to keep any secret of yours — closer than you keep it yourself. But you cannot trust us to let you face trouble alone, and go off without a word. We are your friends.” He seems to be talking about the six of us.
The next day, we all head out early in the morning to tackle the steep, 800-meter climb to the top of Browning Pass. The weather isn’t great, and when we reach the top, I can feel my feet getting numb in my wet, freezing boots. We stop for only a few minutes to enjoy delicious chocolate bars wrapped in bread slices — I think it’s a French thing — before I announce that we have to keep moving immediately to avoid me needing a foot amputation. Even “great adventurers” are whiny.
After a long hike down the Styx River valley, at Harman Hut, Stu and Julia announce that they’re exhausted and have decided to finish the rest of the trip tomorrow. Sad that our six-person band must separate, the French Trio and I bid them a long farewell, using our last moments to fish Stu’s endless knowledge for information about the trails ahead. The remaining four of us continue walking down the valley, on verdant forest trails and shimmering golden prairies until reaching Grassy Flats Hut. Charmed by Charlotte’s spirit, each of us stands for awhile in the glacial Styx River in front of the hut, letting the freezing water wash over our knees.
On the final stretch of trail to Kokathai, Raphaël, Charlotte, and I fall behind, walking slowly because the trip has been so perfect that none of us want it to end. About 12 kilometers from the road, the three of us take a break together under a lush tree canopy. Raphaël pulls a full bottle of peanut butter out of his backpack and offers some to Charlotte and me. We’re all too exhausted and hungry to bother finding a utensil, so Charlotte digs in with her finger, pulling a huge mass of peanut butter from the jar. I do the same, and we pass the jar around, ravenously filling our mouths, covering our fingers in the goop.
Before we know it, we’ve eaten all of the peanut butter. We stare at the empty jar in silence, a little embarrassed that we’ve managed to inhale 3,000 calories of peanut butter in just a few minutes.
“We’re going to have to tell Alain about this,” Raphaël says. “He’s going to wonder what happened to the peanut butter.”
The four of us may not be carrying an evil ring to Mordor, but in just four days, we’ve become a fantastic fellowship of friends.
A hiker looks at rocks covered in red, Irish moss in the Taramakau River in Arthur’s Pass National Park.
I aborted my attempt to packraft the Taramakau River after it became clear that the water level wasn’t high enough.
While hiking in Arthur’s Pass National Park, I listened to the Lord of the Rings audiobook using my phone.
The route up Whitehorn Pass is covered in snow and ice fields. Crevasses below the melting snow are clearly visible.
Julia and Stu climb down the west side of Whitehorn Pass in Arthur’s Pass National Park, New Zealand.
The French Trio climbs an unnamed peak near Park Morpeth Hut in Arthur’s Pass National Park, New Zealand.
The French Trio stands under a tree canopy on the trail to Grassy Flats Hut near Kokathai, New Zealand.
How to Hike from Harper Pass over Kelly Saddle to Harman, Whitehorn, and Browning Pass (the Three Passes)
- OVERVIEW: Three steep mountain passes in Arthur’s Pass National Park, Harman, Whitehorn, and Browning, when connected together, make for a challenging but beautiful summer New Zealand hiking trip. Adding Harper Pass and Kelly Saddle to the beginning of this trip makes the route into an epic nine or ten-day adventure.
- LOGISTICS: The Te Araroa is New Zealand’s 3,000-kilometer hiking route stretching from Cape Reinga on New Zealand’s North Island to Bluff on New Zealand’s South Island. It was officially opened on December 3, 2011, and is widely considered the most physically challenging long-distance thru-hike in the world. If you’re hiking the Te Araroa, you’ll hike over Harper Pass. From there, the Te Aroroa continues south through the Deception Valley, but a more challenging and thrilling option is to diverge from TA and head over the Three Passes in Arthur’s Pass National Park. Be sure to read the Te Araroa trail notes for the Harper Pass section of this trip and DOC’s Three Passes Route brochure for more information about the Three Passes.
- HIKING DANGERS: Only some of the hike over Whitehorn Pass is marked by poles, and hikers must find their own route over permanent ice and snow fields to the top of the pass. The snow and ice fields may have crevasses, especially in late summer. Use caution and consider turning back if the snow is deep. The steep drop-off on the west side of Whitehorn Pass is prone to avalanches. According to DOC, if there is snow on Browning Pass (in winter and early spring) it is essential that all hikers can use an ice axe to self-arrest. A cornice at the top or icy conditions on Browning can dramatically increase this section’s difficulty.
- ROUTE: Here is the route and schedule that I followed:
- DAY 1: Hike from State Highway 7 packraft take-out to Hope-Kiwi Lodge (35 km, 710 m gain, 11 hours) — Note: If you’re thru-hiking the Te Araroa, you’ll start this section at Boyle River Outdoor Education Centre and follow the Tui Track. To do this trip as a section hike, start at the Windy Point car park and follow the Hope Valley Track.
- DAY 2: Hike to Hurunui Hut (18.8 km, 501 m gain, 7 hours)
- DAY 3: Hike to Locke Stream Hut via Harper Pass (26.7 km, 707 m gain, 10 hours)
- DAY 4: Packraft Taramakau River (4 km, water level was too low) and hike to Kellys Creek (23.5 km, 166 m gain, 8 hours) — Note: I took a side trip to the road-accessible Otira Stagecoach Hotel this evening to retrieve a food drop that I had mailed to the hotel previously, but visiting Otira requires a 4 km backtrack.
- DAY 5: Hike to Dillons Homestead Hut via Kelly Saddle (11 km, 1,058 m ascent and 1,171 m descent, 8 hours)
- DAY 6: Hike to Julia Hut (18.4 km, 677 m ascent, 9 hours)
- DAY 7: Hike to Harman Pass and Ariels Tarns (7.9 km, 899 m ascent, 7 hours)
- DAY 8: Hike to Park Morpeth Hut via Whitehorn Pass (11.2 km, 603 m ascent, 990 m descent, 7 hours)
- DAY 9: Hike to Grassy Flat Hut via Browning Pass (17.6 km, 837 m ascent, 1,231 m descent, 9 hours)
- DAY 10: Hike to Upper Kokatahi Road and Middlebranch Farm (16.6 km, 183 m ascent, 599 m descent, 6 hours)
View my route and download the Without Baggage Three Passes GPS track in GPX or KML format.