Beyond Christchurch’s outer reaches, and across the chequerboard plains, the mountains were calling. The sudden arrival of winter can be lamented for the loss of heat, but I embraced the season with the eagerness of a house-bound huskie. Just three hours south-west of Christchurch, the Mackenzie District’s outdoorsy credentials enjoy year-round pulling power, but they hit their zenith in winter, in my opinion. My chief mission was to try my hand at snowshoeing on a taster expedition up Two Thumb Range, which rises gracefully to the north on the eastern side of Lake Tekapo.
Warmly greeted by Anne Braun-Elwert at Alpine Recreation’s office, and my alpine guide extraordinaire, Stella Sweney, I was promptly kitted out with the rudimentary alpine hiking gear. I can’t recall the last time I had two women dressing me. But if you arrive somewhat ill-equipped like me, Alpine Recreation will soon get you sorted with all the accoutrements, including snowshoes, ski poles and waterproof gaiters. Snowshoes no longer resemble tennis rackets. The newer versions are lightweight aluminium and plastic, which your boots are strapped into. The underside of snowshoes have metal teeth delivering the necessary traction when tromping through snow-packed undulating terrain.
Anne and her late husband, Gottlieb, are quite simply New Zealand alpine royalty, loved and lauded for their passion and prowess in mountain guiding and eco-tourism. Thirty five years ago they founded Alpine Recreation Canterbury, the first outdoor adventure company in New Zealand to offer ski touring using cross-country and telemark skis. In 1985 they built Rex Simpson Hut in the Two Thumb Range, as a base for ski touring, snowshoeing in winter and alpine trekking in summer. They then built Caroline Hut in Aoraki Mount Cook National Park, establishing the Ball Pass trekking operation, New Zealand’s highest alpine pass crossing.
Alongside training many of our country’s mountain guides, Gottlieb was quite the trail-blazer, developing our ultimate ski-touring route, Symphony on Skis. Lacing together our 4 main glaciers and traversing the Southern Alps, the 47km route starts in the Godley Valley and finishes at Fox Glacier, ascending as high as 4100metres. As a relative newbie to alpine adventure, the Symphony will have to wait for another day! Tragically, in 2008, you may recall thast Gottlieb died from a ruptured aorta, at the Rex Simpson Hut, while guiding a group including his good friend, Prime Minister Helen Clark. His legacy lives on, and is in great hands, with Anne remaining at the helm of Alpine Recreation.
My assignment was to sample the award-winning company’s most popular touring option, the two night snowshoeing hike on Two Thumb Range. Situated in Te Kahui Kaupeka Conservation Park, in the foothills of the Southern Alps, the first day’s hike is a three hour 500 metre climb up the old glacial terrace at the northern end of Lake Tekapo, to the Rex Simpson Hut, at 1300 metres.
Time slows, worries peel away and new perspectives are gained. I felt like I was climbing into a postcard. Winter’s magical transformation had turned the high country’s tawny tussock lands into a snow-coated playground. A fresh duvet of powder soft snow had fattened up the snow base, overnight. From Rex Simpson Hut, a variety of enticing trails, ripe for guided exploration, take you around Mt. Gerald, Camp Valley and the Southern Terraces. Given my limited time, Stella and I set our sights on Beuzenberg Peak, at 2070 metres. ( Beuzenberg and its sister peak, Erica, are named in honour of the Alpine Recreation guide who died in 2006.) The descent from here down to Rex Simpson Hut, is considered by many intrepid hikers of the Te Araroa Trail, as the photogenic highlight of the epic 3000km long national walk.
In the shadow of Beuzenberg Peak, I gazed in jaw-dropped awe at this hallowed landscape of wide-angled views. The Southern Alps, the luminous lakes and the golden halo of the Mackenzie Basin stretch out endlessly before you. Winter’s clear, crisp air heightens the spectacle, rendering the wrap-around scenery razor-sharp, in a palette of white, green, gold and turquoise.
The silence up here is so profound it fairly echoes. Savouring the magic of the moment, it was the unfamiliar perspective of mighty Aoraki Mt. Cook that transfixed my attention. The unforgiving East and South faces of the mountain strutted the horizon, spectacularly flaunting Aoraki’s prestige, beauty and treachery.
Stella sharpened up my geographical nouse, pointing out some key landmarks, including beautiful Mt. Tasman, Mt. Sibbald, Malte Brun and Elie De Beaumont. With hundreds of snow-capped peaks competing for your attention, it’s the tidily sculpted peaks, shaped like soft serve ice creams that melt the heart. Suitably lulled into a dreamy winter trance – or was it the thinner air - our three hour 5km-hike down to Rex Simpson Hut traversed the moderately angled Snake Ridge. The endorphin-rush was turbo-charged by the unwavering scenic grandeur. Truly – it’s mesmerising.
To the left, sprawling Stag Saddle was criss-crossed by the footprints of hares – the only flicker of local life. The overnight snowfall was surprisingly deep in places – up to 60 cms, turning the relative ease of snowshoeing into an alpine adventure more akin to wading through snow, which rose above my knees in some spots. Those ski poles proved to be priceless as we navigated down Snake Ridge and Camp Stream Valley to reach the hut. But as long as you’ve got a reasonable level of fitness, it’s not a formidable work out. (Although my legs sure felt it the next morning!)
Rex Simpson Hut is an absolute charmer and its fully equipped with firewood, gas, solar lighting, sleeping bags, bunks, pillows and mattresses. A wood-fired potbelly stove provides fantastic heat. Consisting of three rooms, the hut can actually sleep up to 15 people. It’s fully stocked with food, minimising the need to carry many provisions in, other than some fresh items of food and your personal clothing.
A couple of intrepid Singaporeans had spent the night in the hut prior to my arrival – leaving behind a monster snowman to greet me. A world away from the sweaty tropical heat of South East Asia, they must have pinched themselves on arrival here. Adventure need not be the preserve of hardcore explorers only. Beyond the main tourist trail, relish some offbeat adventuring in the Mackenzie with Alpine Recreation. It’s what travel memories are made of. www.alpinerecreation.com
For more information on exploring nature’s wondrous offerings in the Mackenzie, head to www.christchurchnz.com/destinations/aoraki-mount-cook-mackenzie/
Mike Yardley is Newstalk ZB’s Travel Correspondent on Saturday Mornings with Jack Tame.