Sometimes — usually after I have just fallen face first into a particularly brisk mountain stream — I find myself wondering again why it is that I enjoy backpacking. The West Coast of New Zealand is notoriously wet, and I can think of more comfortable ways to travel. Car, for instance. Or at least on roads where most streams such as this one are furnished with bridges. Wringing out my sleeves, I know that at least I won’t need to take my boots off to wade through the next one — my things are wet enough now that it hardly matters.
And yet, walking across the countryside on your own two feet gives you a perspective that is far more intimate than that seen through the glass rectangle of a windshield. The paths through the wilderness, whether easy or hard, show you the shape, size and texture of a country more completely than the paved roads will.
Nothing can quite make you appreciate the beauty and majesty of a mountain like clawing your way up the side of it.
A mountain range called the Southern Alps runs up and down the middle of New Zealand’s South Island. Paved roads cross this range in three places: Arthur’s Pass, Lewis Pass and Haast Pass. We decide to try a lesser-known crossing over the mountain range, a seldom-used foot trail located between Haast and Arthur’s Pass.
“This was a pack trail in 1865,” explains a man at the Department of Conservation office as we examine the map. “It was used when they were trying to bring gold from West Coast mines to the East Coast, crossing here, at Browning Pass. It was abandoned for a better route — the road you drive over today. But you can still hike this.”
The trail begins at a pasture; there are no signs. We park our van there with a note that we will be back to collect it in less than two weeks. Then we begin to walk up the valley and into the tall mountains beyond.
The geography of a mountain is much better understood once you have walked it. Valleys, ridges and the patterns of mountain streams that fall deep into river gorges become more than scenery — they are interlocking forces that become the rules you navigate by. Following the contours of the land — rather than the dotted yel-low lines of a road — can be endlessly instructive.
After a day of hiking, I am filled with such an honest hunger that those 50-cent noodles I carry taste like a five-star meal. And however humble the lodgings may be, the views are almost always magnificent. Tonight our lodgings are humble indeed. Heavy rain has flooded both the rivers before us, and those we already crossed, rendering them impassable with new torrents of water. Caught in the middle, we cannot make it to a shelter tonight and have no choice but to sleep on the trail. Stringing up a tarp as best we can, we change into our remaining dry clothes and shelter in our sleeping bags.
“Are you warm enough?” I ask my friends. We boil water on our stoves and pour it into our Nalgenes, turning them into hot water bottles for our feet. I chew the last of my chocolate and burrow into my bag. Despite the rain pounding on the low tarp over our heads, I feel warmth slowly sliding into me.
This is perhaps the best part of backpacking: knowing that, at the end of the day, you can carry everything that you need. All of my food and shelter fits into my backpack, and as long as I can carry it, I can know what it is to be completely self-sufficient. By morning, the rain has ceased and the sun climbs slowly over the ridge to wake us. I observe the morning from the level of the forest floor, watching a weka bird poking in the leaves and the dew-covered branches slowly light up with sunlight. This is New Zealand — up close and personal.
We do not, in the end, make it over Browning Pass. Rains make the river crossings too dangerous, and we retrace our steps instead. But we’ve learned something firsthand about this 150-year-old pack trail — the road that wasn’t — and what it was like for those 19th century laborers to traverse it, laden with gold and supplies, from the gullies of a veritable rain forest to glacial heights. And in retracing their steps, we’ve discovered the nature of New Zealand’s Southern Alps.
Meg Adams, who grew up in Holden and graduated from John Bapst Memorial High School in Bangor and Vassar College in New York, shares her experiences with readers each Friday. For more about her adventures, go to the BDN Web site: bangordailynews.com or e-mail her at firstname.lastname@example.org.