As we entered the final couple of weeks of our trip, we had done most of the things that had been at the top of our list. This gave us the luxury of being able to do some things that we hadn't originally thought we'd be able to fit in.
Our first stop after Mount Cook was Christchurch, New Zealand's second largest city after Auckland. Almost seven years after the 2011 earthquake that destroyed the city centre there's still a lot of evidence of the tragedy. There are many improvised parking lots where tall buildings used to stand and almost as many traffic cones as people. We had a nice enough time looking around the city on foot and on the old tram route, but we were mainly there for park run. Hagley Park, the city's biggest, hosts some 200 park runners every Saturday morning and was a good one - a fast flat course without a lot of repetition.
Leaving Christchurch we headed back towards the west coast and Arthur's Pass: possibly the most famous of the routes that crosses the Southern Alps. On the way we stopped at Castle Hill, some weirdly shaped boulders by the side of the road. We hadn't planned to stop long, but we found ourselves fascinated by the rocks, finding eerie faces in them and enjoying a bit of impromptu rock climbing. There were also people who were doing some more planned rock climbing, with bouldering mats and climbing shoes. We'll have to save that for next time.
We had been warned that after the famous Arthur's Pass would not be that impressive after having seen the mountains of Fiordland. Thankfully, our capacity to be amazed was not fully used up yet, and there was plenty to enjoy on this road through the mountains. We stopped in Arthur's Pass village to do one of the most popular day hikes in New Zealand: Avalanche Peak. A steep track straight up the mountain with a slightly less steep track back down. The DOC guide who talked to us about had been very busy that week rescuing dehydrated hikers from the track and warned us that we should take a lot of water. We had to leave before 1pm so he wouldn't have to do evening rescues, and should feel free to drink any water we could find. ‘Even the contaminated water will only make you sick after 24 hours, and then you'll be off the mountain’ he said, clearly preferring us being violently ill on highway six rather than his paths.
Feeling suitably impressed and watered up we got to work early the next morning. The walk itself was one of the more challenging ones, and definitely one best enjoyed in dry weather. The path really went straight up to the top, mostly via rocks. We often had to use hands and feet to drag ourselves and our water bottles upwards. The roots and rocks we used for this were already smoothed by generations of hikers doing the same thing. Whenever we found a bit of stable ground we could look around at the view: mountain ridges everywhere. We got up close and personal with one of them when we had to scramble a few hundred meters over a rocky ridge to the highest point of the mountain. Three young Israelis, probably just out of military service, had arrived there just before us, making us feel like we were part of a climbing elite. Unfortunately, on the way down we encountered quite a few more people including a couple with a small baby. Elite or not, we had a good day with great views. And best of all, we did not need any rescuing.
After our months of hiking, the hut experience on the Milford Trail and Mount Cook, and experiencing improved weather, we thought we were ready to do the Hike That Got Away. This is a ridge walk to Angelus Hut in Nelson Lakes park, which we had seen from a distance when we did the Mount Robert loop. Since we were still dealing with a constant hot sun, we decided to wait until lunch was over and the sun was past peak strength to start.
Sadly, even the leisurely build-up to this walk was filled with mishaps. It was too hot to be in the van but too sandfly-heavy to be outside, so we had to pace around a campsite trying to get our things sorted without standing still at any point. We did the laundry at the campsite but our clothes came out of the dryer suspiciously damp. On our way up to the start of the walk the fridge door opened and eggs rolled out, with Adrian's favourite jacket perfectly positioned to break their fall and catch the egg yolk.
Because of the dark clouds gathering in our minds we didn't pay too much attention to the actual dark coming up towards the peaks when we finally started our walk. The view onto the lakes was stunning to start with, with the rain in the distance only making it more dramatic. When the thunder seemed to be getting closer we got a bit less comfortable. By the time we had reached the tree line clouds were all around us, and we couldn't even see the shelter where we wanted to assess the situation. What we could see was a Belgian man with a resemblance to Jesus who came running down past us. ‘Please don't go further’ he urged us. ‘I have been running for two hours to get down. There is a massive storm coming. You won't be able to see anything. And when you are on the rocks in the rain…’
We considered this for a few seconds. Our backpacks were carefully packed, we had pre-cooked dinner and brought chocolate as a reward for the walk we hoped would make the day ok. But a quick look around made clear that the day was not going to be ok anyway. we turned around and followed Jesus at a distance, shuffling awkwardly without big backpacks. We were mostly in the trees but on the parts of the zig-zagging route down that were exposed we could feel the rain starting. We had only just made it to the van when the rain properly started. The roads were empty when we made our way down the mountain again to find a camping spot for the night, the only busyness was around a flooded drain that the ever vigilant road workers were already fixing. Once we had found our place, we had our reward chocolate anyway. No epic hike today, but epic disaster avoided.
After this day we decided to head for the Marlborough Sound region, which we had seen quickly when we had just entered the North Island but which was worth a second look.