The Gillespie Pass

Beginning this blog proved to be incredibly difficult. It is nearly three years since we hiked the Gillespie Pass Circuit, and I have delayed writing my account of our adventure for some time. Why has this been the case? Looking back at photos and footage captured from our travels in New Zealand has left me with a feeling of melancholy I have been unable to shake. Post-travelling blues are natural, and as I sit here now in a cold, dark room at the start of another long British winter, I am exceedingly jealous of my past self. I am hoping writing this account will prove to be therapeutic. I want the feeling of longing for the past to disappear and positive memories of a challenge confronted and overcome to be my primary emotion.

Whilst living in Wanaka, tales of remote alpine huts and mountain trails were something we were eager for. As winter ended and the skiers departed, travellers drifted into town as the lazy summer season began. Excitable accounts of adventures at the famous Milford Sound or high-adrenaline antics in nearby Queenstown were easy to come by. The occasional hushed whisper of a back-country track named the Gillespie Pass soon reached our ears. Many had considered it, fewer had attempted it, and even fewer had completed it. After leaving our home in Wanaka, packing our lives into our 4×4 and bidding our friends farewell, we were soon on the road with this alpine adventure in the forefront of our minds.

Day One: Makaroa to Young Hut

Makaroa is a small township on the western edge of Otago. According to the Department of Conservation (DOC), it is the start point of the track. However, a wet start to the summer had rendered the Makaroa River (a dangerous crossing at the best of times) unfordable on foot. A short distance further from Makaroa is a popular beauty spot named the Blue Pools. It is here a DOC Ranger had bluntly told us we should begin the hike. We were yet to explore this incredible area of Mount Aspiring National Park, and the extra couple of kilometres added to our first day did not quell our excitement. The high altitude and potential danger on this four-day hike resulted in us carrying heavy rucksacks, in an attempt to cover all weather possibilities. Extra warm layers, waterproof jackets and sturdy, reliable boots were essential. The large amount of extra food we carried was to guard us against any unwanted delays due to injury. With a heady mixture of anticipation and nerves, we began our adventure.

After crossing a swing-bridge over the Blue Pools, we followed the Blue-Young Link Track, our leg muscles warming up and our backs adjusting to the weight of the heavy rucksack. One hour of easy walking brought us to the mouth of the Young River, as it flowed into the many branches of the Makaroa River. Turning right, our path narrowed as we entered the river valley. The path was perhaps two metres above the fast-flowing water, and orange posts at irregular intervals signalled to us we were walking in the right direction. Eventually, the path dropped down to the same level as the river. Looking ahead, we could see our current course would require us to plunge into the water. This was not an option. The river was deep, incredibly cold and moving rapidly. Drowning in rivers has been nicknamed “The New Zealand Death”. This originates from the first settlers and travellers who reached New Zealand. Writer Enga Washbourn addresses the regularity of settlers drowning in her superb history ‘Courage and Camp Ovens’. Whether it be due to fatigue, a misplaced sense of urgency or simply misreading the strength and depth of the river, death by drowning was a phenomenon in the 18th and 19th centuries. Being confronted with wild and powerful rivers is both nerve-wracking and exhilarating. Unlike many controlled or canalised rivers in Britain, New Zealand rivers are a prime example of the power of nature unshackled by mankind.

To our relief, an alternate route revealed itself. We could instead drag ourselves further upwards, through thick bush via a sturdy chain that had been bolted to the side of the steep slope to our right. Feeling the strain of our heavy packs, we pulled ourselves upwards. The chain allowed us to reach a path high up on the slope, now at least thirty metres above the river. Nursing grazed knees from our tough route, we carried on through the bush. The colloquialism ‘bush’ is perhaps one of my favourite terms that highlights the uncompromising attitude and tough going nature of New Zealanders and Australians. When presented with thick forests of Silver Beech trees and ferns, my mind conjures numerous adjectives and my imagination runs wild. By using the term ‘bush’ when referring to a deep forest or hostile terrain, Kiwis have instead reduced the untameable landscape to something that can be explored, conquered and ultimately controlled.

Further and further we travelled, observing the rushing river from our precarious vantage point. Gnarled and slippery tree routes snaked across the path, slowing our progress. At least two hours passed before the route began to gradually descend. We reached the level ground of the river valley, our route now crawling through a wide expanse between high peaks to our right and the deep, wide flow of the Young river to our left. With light rain beginning to fall we quickened our pace. The ground of the river plain was saturated, indicating the river had flooded recently.

At the junction of the north and south branches of the river, we reached a swing bridge. A basic campsite was nearby, but we pushed on, eager to reach the shelter of Young Hut. We followed the southern branch of the river. The track, narrowing again, took us back up into the undergrowth. Our unpredictable path looked down upon the thundering river, and we encountered our first major obstacle. We had been walking in a single file for most of the day, but our route now required us to edge along sideways as the unstable path began to give way beneath our feet. One slip would see us plummet down a steep bank and into the deafening torrent of water twenty metres below us. Aware of the weight on our backs, we knew any slip could prove to be fatal. Our route looked impossible to pass. Now, the level track could have been no more than thirty centimetres in width. We could see that within fifty paces or so the path would broaden out again. We considered alternatives. Do we battle upwards through the thick forest in an attempt to find another route? Impossible, the denseness of the undergrowth was unpassable. Should we slide down the bank as carefully as possible, and use the boulders emerging from the water as stepping stones? Again impossible. There would be no way to control our momentum down the steep bank. We would have to edge along the path.

I considered throwing my bag ahead, or perhaps up into the bush to be retrieved later. Surely the lighter we were the easier we could edge along the crumbling track. It was an idea that was quickly dispelled. Losing my rucksack was not an option. In an attempt to appear brave, I went first. Edging along slowly, feeling chunks of the track plunge down to the river and with the roar of the water overwhelming my senses, I made it across. However, the narrow track was now even less substantial than before due to my crossing. Lisa nervously edged over, apprehension painted on her face. But she made it, and breathing deeply we looked back, finding it hard to believe how anyone could pass after us.

The remainder of the day proved to be less nerve-wracking. With evening approaching, we reached Young Hut. It was a large structure, built on high stilts due to its proximity to the river. Utilising the full water tanks, we prepared a meal and a hot drink, whilst entertaining ourselves reading the literature made available in the hut. The hut logbook contained infrequent but excitable entries of groups or individuals tackling the circuit. This was a comfort to us, as we felt very alone on this trail. As day became night a fellow hiker emerged from the undergrowth and entered the hut. A simple nod was the only interaction we had with this mysterious traveller. We settled down for bed early, another big day lay ahead of us.

Day Two: Young Hut to Siberia Hut

We rose to a beautiful, clear day. Good visibility and fair weather would be essential, as this was the day we would cross the Gillespie Pass. Rain would have made the pass treacherous, and low cloud would render navigation nearly impossible. There was no sign of the hiker who arrived late the previous evening. We left the hut quickly, eager to make progress while conditions were favourable. Our path led us immediately up into the undergrowth. The steepness of the path set the pulse racing and removed any stiffness from our limbs. Less than an hour passed when the forest made way and the extent of our challenge revealed itself.

Emerging from the bushline, we were confronted with a valley on an epic scale. The evocatively named Mount Awful and Mount Dreadful dominated the skyline. Perhaps it was the anticipation of what was to come or the sinister names of our mountainous foes, but we took a moment to refresh ourselves, and with a steely resolve entered the valley. The valley had an undeniably menacing character. Hikers had struggled here, had injured themselves here, had died here. We crossed a small wooden bridge that straddled the Upper Young River and stooped down to refill our water bottles from the icy, alpine flow. Once again, we relied on the orange posts to guide us. As we reached the foot of the pass we could not believe what we were confronted with.

We had expected a steep route. One that would certainly be exhausting, and at times nerve-jangling. What we had not expected was a near-vertical climb upwards into the unknown. In typical Kiwi understatement, the DOC had described this stage of the hike as ‘steep’. We abandoned our nerves and took to the task with relish. Up and up we scrambled, forcing ourselves to not look down. Up and up, Mt Awful looming over us to our right, judging our progress, a malevolent force waiting to claim another victim. Over an hour of intense climbing had passed before we stopped for a water break. Looking back into the valley was a stunning sight. Further up our route, we were convinced we saw a tiny figure ahead of us, seemingly miles away, still climbing.

Knowing what we had to do, we got on with it. Heads down and pushing on and on, occasionally allowing ourselves a look at our surroundings. At times our route became a more traditional steep path, and I was thankful for it. Mt Dreadful now came fully into view, its dark ridge and threatening peak greeting us as we reached the saddle of the pass. The highest point of the pass was 1600 metres, but it felt higher as we surveyed our stark and ominous surroundings. Huge slabs of ice and snow were gripping to the side of the mountains, and we suspected we would encounter some soon ourselves. When we did, we had to take a moment to compose ourselves. In the distance was the comforting sight of an orange post. Blocking our way was thick snow, covering a slope that gradually fell away to our right, before plunging to an unseen precipice. I immediately slipped as I stepped onto the snowy sheet, and struggled to bring myself to my feet. Lisa, wearing heavier leather boots and armed with hiking poles, bravely went ahead, slowly but methodically treading a path for me to follow. The further we went the less threatening the slope became. We began to gradually descend, and saw ahead of is the unmistakable sign of slide marks, down the slope towards the rocky path. Someone had been here before. Following suit, we slid down on our bottoms, a welcome relief from the earlier tension. Laughing to ourselves, we believed the hardest of the route to be over.

Down we went, passing blasted rock and shingle. It was a harsh environment, and our imaginations were able to run wild as we relaxed once again into the rhythm of walking. The ascent had taken its toll on Lisa, her stiff boots straining her achilles and testing her previously injured ankle. Due to this our meandering route down the mountain, towards the bushline was slow. The track reached the forest, and this shelter proved to be a relief from the heat of the day. We had not felt it whilst up on the pass, being distracted by the task at hand. Our route gently wound downwards, ambling alongside Gillespie Stream, which soon flowed into the larger Siberia Stream. A series of zig-zags brought us to the valley floor. The late afternoon sun was dazzling. Once again the valley was partly flooded, which slowed our progress.

The route eventually reached the banks of the stream, from there we had an easy hour walk to Siberia Hut. It had been a superb days hiking, and we paused outside the hut to congratulate each other and remove our boots from our aching feet. The notorious swarms of sandflies found us before long and drove us into the hut. Once again, we were the only occupants, alongside the solitary hiker from the night before. He was a mild-mannered Scot, who had recently arrived in New Zealand, having previously explored the mountains of Patagonia. He had been sight-seeing at Blue Pools the day before and had seen us pass with our heavy hiking gear. In a spontaneous move, he had raced back to his car, thrown whatever food and warm clothing he could find into a rucksack and followed us. He confessed this somewhat guiltily, but we found it hilarious anyone would want to copy us, and admired his sense of adventure.

Day Three: Siberia Hut to Lake Crucible

Perhaps it was the previous day’s exertions catching up on me, or the prospect of another day in the unforgiving sun, but I found it very difficult to get moving on the third day of our adventure. This was despite lying on a hard, wooden bed, with a wafer-thin roll mat barely acting as a mattress. Lisa eventually drove me from the bunkroom and we prepared our mornings porridge and a hot tea.
Our mission today was a comparably short one, a side trip into the mountains. Lake Crucible, a glacier lake high above the Siberia Valley was our destination.

Emerging from the hut, we proceeded back up the valley we had come from the previous evening. It was another beautiful day, gentle wind and the faint rush of Siberia Stream to our left the only noise in this idyllic valley. After walking for almost an hour, we crossed the wide, shallow stream. The water came up to our knees, and the ice-cold temperature ensured we rushed to the other side. We moved forward, guided by a series of orange posts at regular intervals. Straight ahead of us, at the top of the valley was the looming, snow-topped presence of Mount Dreadful. Fortunately for us, we were not tackling this mountain today. Instead, we turned left, moving towards a densely wooded slope from which a stream emerged. Once we reached the trees, our route took us steeply upwards. Again we were confronted with a near-vertical climb. Scrambling up and up, I used tree routes and branches to pull myself higher. Despite being sheltered from the sun, we stopped at regular intervals to rehydrate, while peering up into the trees for a clue of the summit of the steep path.

The sound of the gurgling, rushing, tumbling stream had been our unseen companion for the duration of the climb. Now the trees began to thin out, and the path began to level. We crossed the stream, a large tree trunk acting as a bridge allowing us to pass over. To our right, the water serenely gathered and pooled, before falling sharply down the slope to our left. After a short time, we reached the edge of the bushline. The route led through a valley, with stunted trees and scrub populating the folds and culverts that punctuated the flat ground. The ground at the far end of the valley noticeably rose, towards a basin that contained the icy Lake Crucible. Spurred on by a desire to rest, we quickened our pace, the narrowing valley funnelling us towards our destination. There appeared to be no life here. The sound of the valley was indescribable. The rush of the tumbling stream receded the further we advanced. There was no bird song, just an ominous silence. Yet we felt we could hear something. It was the sound of stillness. The sound of ice and rock. Rock that had been present here for millennia, ice that had been thawing for centuries.

The approach to the lake was rocky and slow, and we covered a short distance in what felt an unduly long time. Finally, we reached the lake, slumped down and surveyed the scene. The lake sat at the foot of Mount Alba, and its dark, steep slopes formed an amphitheatre around the circular lake. Huge icebergs remained in the lake, despite the hot weather beating down upon them. After a brief rest, we shuffled down the shingle bank to get closer to the water. Daring to test the temperature, we removed our boots and socks and dipped our feet into the icy water. Feeling refreshed, we ate a small lunch while admiring our surroundings.

As the day wore on, and the sun began its gradual descent from the sky, we too turned for home. Going down the steep woodland trail proved to be as challenging as the way up. Tree roots and branches were constant trip hazards, these obstacles proving to be mentally draining rather than physically tiring. Once we reached the wide valley floor, we ambled back to the hut, happy to not have to concentrate on every footstep. Our night’s companion had left, to be replaced by a family of four and two highly enthusiastic Canadian hikers. The family had used a locally owned boat company to come straight up the Wilkin River from Makaroa. Once the couple had stopped singing hiking songs, we asked them about their days walk. They had found it a “piece of cake” and “a great little trail”. Feeling we were perhaps out of our depth, we did not push them further on how apparently easy the trail had been. I retreated to bed, feeling I had been almost pushed out of the room by their two huge personalities. This had been a great day. Enough exercise to prevent our limbs from stiffening up, and yet more adventure to galvanise us. Our next day was our last on the trail and by far the longest.

Day Four: Siberia Hut to Makaroa

It was Christmas day. Despite this being our third warm-weather Christmas in the southern hemisphere, it still felt strange to be lacing up hiking boots and donning shorts rather than slipping into tracksuit bottoms to tackle a mountain of food. The previous Christmas, I had suffered severe sunburn after playing an impromptu game of cricket with zero sunscreen on my face, and with large quantities of alcohol in my system. This year would be different. I slathered myself in factor-50 from head to toe. Struggling to open the door due to the volume of cream on my hands, we eventually left early. The sound of the enthusiastic couple lecturing the hut’s occupants about the contents of their peanut butter and jelly sandwiches was still ringing in our ears.

According to the DOC, we would be covering at least 26km on this final stage of the trail. Our spirits were high, and energy levels sufficient for a long day in the sun. The path rose and fell from the valley floor into the trees on two occasions. From our lofty vantage point, there were superb views of a gorge in the landscape the Siberia Stream had carved. Before lunchtime, we reached the junction of Siberia Stream and the Wilkin River. The river was very high due to snow-melt rushing down from the sun-baked peaks of the surrounding mountains. Kerin Forks Hut sat on the other side of the unfordable river. This small hut would serve as an excellent base for those exploring further south into Mount Aspiring National Park. However this was not for us, and we maintained a good pace along the flats for most of the afternoon.

As the day progressed, and the longer the day felt, we stopped with greater frequency to rehydrate and re-apply sunscreen. The trail left the flats and entered the forest. Here, the route was very tough going. The trail now hugged the river’s edge, while proving to be rough and eroded. Obstacles such as fallen trees and sinuous roots impeded our progress. It also came right down to the level of the river. On numerous occasions we had to swing ourselves back into the undergrowth with the help of branches, to avoid wading into the water. Earlier in the day, when the track was further from the river, the water appeared placid as it meandered through the valley. Now, up close and personal, it was deep, fast and cold. What felt like hours went by as we battled with the ever-deteriorating path and thick bush to our left.

To our relief, we emerged from the trees and the route opened out once again onto flatter ground. The Wilkin River sped off to our right, and we entered an area of dry, arid farmland. No more than a kilometre had passed when a bizarre encounter came our way. We could see a man walking away to our right, near to the river. He waved and came nearer. We stopped, presuming this must have been a farmer, hopefully approaching us to give advice about the upcoming Makaroa River crossing we had so far avoided thinking about. As it was, the potentially wise and helpful farmer was in fact, a young hiker. He greeted us cheerfully in a thick German accent, but his appearance told of a difficult and long day. Gesturing to a tree about 200 metres away, we saw two companions sheltering from the sun under a dead tree. It transpired the group had tried to cross the river from the Makaroa township, where we had been warned not to days before. Despite there being little or no rain during the last few days, the river was apparently still hazardously high. The trio had spent hours scouring the river for a place they could cross into the Wilkin Valley, before eventually managing it, and then slumping down, in the first bit of shade they could find. When I informed him they had at over five hours hiking before reaching Siberia Hut, the man seemed unperturbed. Perhaps this was the folly of youth or supreme confidence in his hiking ability, but it was a perfect illustration of how to get into trouble in the backcountry of New Zealand. The DOC does not warn of a dangerous river crossing without a reason. Rivers claim the lives of local hikers and foreign visitors with alarming frequency during the summer months. Bidding the man farewell and hoping they would take the rest of the days walking seriously, we continued on, feeling apprehensive about crossing the Makaroa.

Up ahead we could see a huge herd of cows, numbering at least a hundred. As we approached, the more nervous they became, and the tenser the situation felt. Mothers anxiously shielded their young ones, as we passed by, trying to appear as nonthreatening as possible. Two bulls plundered their way through a stream to take a closer look at us. The herd was not used to human encroachment, and treated us with hostility. I was acutely aware that the only item on me that could be used for protection against a charge was a fairly pathetic whistle attached to a strap on my rucksack. This whistle may have prompted a small sheep to step aside, but was unlikely to avert a stampede of angry cattle. I felt as if I was constantly being watched, and it was with a great deal of happiness to cross a small stream and stride away from the herd.

We were now at the banks of the Makaroa River. It is not one singular, flowing body of water, but a river of many branches. We could see we could cross to one long island of sand, and use these infrequent banks as a resting spot after an initial crossing. The river was indeed deep and moving at walking pace, with currents pushing and pulling with ferocity. We had hoped to see an orange post guiding us as to where to cross, or the sign of a farmer’s 4×4 tracks moving in and out of the river. As it was we had no clues. After half an hour walking up the river, we found somewhere that looked safer to cross, but what would still require a lot of strength to push through. The crossing would be done in three stages. The flow of the river on our first crossing looked very strong, but a small island of shingle and sand was reachable. From what we could see the crossings after would be shallower. A mistake many hikers make before crossing a river is removing their boots to prevent them from becoming wet. It is not worth the unnecessary risk. The bottom of your feet are highly sensitive, especially after being in a hot sweaty boot for several hours. When crossing you need strength to push hard through the flowing water, which is difficult when barefoot. Large rocks litter the river bed and are easily tripped over when tentatively wading through barefoot. We tightened the waist-belts on our rucksacks and prepared to cross.

The river was not in flood, as it was clear, with no debris such as tree branches flowing downstream. This gave us confidence in the crossing. All that was required was a last push, a last test of strength to round off an amazing four days. Lisa and I, stood shoulder to shoulder and linked our arms between each other’s rucksack and back. I would be upstream, taking the force of the river, while Lisa on the downstream side could ensure we were on target to reach the island. With the sun blazing down on us, we crossed. The river was fast, strong and cold. After twenty steps the water was already above my waist. On we pushed, straining against the current. Trying to push off on soft sand on the river bed proved difficult, and it was a relief when we stepped onto a rock, allowing a better stride forward. We were halfway there, and the water was above my stomach and getting too high on Lisa. I was aware that we had been dragged downstream, towards rapids curling around the bottom of the shingle island. Seeing this danger, we forced ourselves on, and within another twenty paces the water level had dropped back to thigh height, then knee, then ankle. At the Island, we briefly paused, thrilled to have crossed the hardest part of the river. At our next crossing, the river only reached up to thigh level and was a shorter distance. We had made it!

The long walk back to Makaroa proved to be easy, as I still felt the adrenaline rush of tackling the river. Farmsteads came in to view, and we came across a father and son on a Christmas Day stroll. They saw our wet clothes and sweaty complexions, but simply greeted us and moved on. The relative civilisation of the Makaroa Township was reached late in the day. We had been walking for at least ten hours. The challenge now was to hitchhike back to our car at the Blue Pools. An ambition had been realised and a sublime trail had been completed. We had seen some incredible alpine landscapes and experienced the wilderness and beauty of backcountry New Zealand. Some things are best left a secret, and part of me wishes that the Gillespie Pass retains some of its secrecy, and keeps its aura. But if you are a confident hiker, it is an unmissable experience to have while travelling in New Zealand. When walking trails to this day we use the Gillespie Pass as the benchmark in regards to how great an experience hiking can be. It is yet to be surpassed.

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