We do not get off to an auspicious start. Though the skies are stunningly clear and the sun shines brightly, we do not get out the door on the way to Glentui and our hike early enough. (We had originally planned to hike on Saturday but a poor weather forecast for that day caused us to postpone until Sunday, instead.)
Our plan is ambitious, the longest tramp (New Zealand for “hike”) we have ever attempted as a family. By a long shot.
Frustratingly, the New Zealand Department of Conservation website and maps often do not include distances. Instead they offer time estimates, which I never tire of complaining about. I mean, the same 3 km trail could take Scott Jurek the blink of an eye or the oldest great-great-grandma alive 10 hours.
Please, for the love of mountains, just give me the distance in kilometers or miles!
The drive takes us across the Canterbury Plains to the small town of Oxford, where we stop at an open-air market to buy a coffee and a couple pastries. Then, we finish the drive, going from one lane each way to a narrow, windy, gravel road that ends at the Glentui Car Park.
Delighted with the pleasant weather, sunshine, and plenty of energy, we stop to take a few pictures at the trailhead. It is 11:30am.
The hike is a loop track comprised of three different trails: the Richardson Track that climbs to the summit of Mount Richardson (1047 meters/3435 feet), then across a long ridge-line on the Blowhard Track, and down the Bypass Track.
We don’t really know how far each of those segments of the track are, but we have rough estimates on time.
Early on in our hike we get a great reward of a small side trail that leads to a waterfall overlook (see above, lower right). Rushing water pours down into a beautiful gorge. Commence conversations about falling over the edge of a cliff–always fun on ledges/edges/promonitories.
Almost immediately we notice some of the trees look blackened around the trunks. I initially guess that perhaps a forest fire had burnt the bark, but then we see more and more of them. It turns out, upon further research, that the beech trees are actually covered with a black mold fungus. Yum.
We have not hiked very far past the waterfall when we must scramble over a large tree that has fallen across the path. Whereas in the U.S. most trails we hike are in places where park rangers and/or volunteer trail groups maintain trails, several of our New Zealand hikes so far do not appear to receive regular trail upkeep. Cautiously, we skirt around and under the tree. This happens again and again over the next few hours.
Just a bit further along we encounter the first of what turns out to be MANY trail-spanning mud pits. As in, we have no real way around the mud-suctioning ground. The girls pick their way alongside, sliding and slipping from rock to downed limb. But Calvin needs much more help, so James and I alternate helping him through/around the worst patches.
The trail map indicates that the summit of Mount Richardson, on which we’ve set our tramping sights, should take about 2 1/2 hours to reach. About one hour into our hike, at 12:30, we stop for 10 minutes by a stream. We each have a sandwich and some water before we continue our ascent.
And I do mean ascent, because from there the trail leaves the lowland beech and podocarp forest and starts rocky switchbacks up the mountainside.
I have not started my GPS tracking watch because I know from experience that the battery-life is shorter than our hike will be… it would run out after a few hours. Instead I’ve chosen to use it just as a regular watch so that we can make sure we are somewhat on target. After all, it’s winter here in the southern hemisphere and we’ll lose the sun at about 5:30 with full dark at 6pm.
Surely we have plenty of time, though… right?
The switchbacks and dramatic uphill trek, much of which entails large upward steps over roots and rocks, reveal more and more views over the plains and to the Pacific Ocean.
Everyone takes off their jackets as the exertion level increases and the sun warms our backs.
At this point, about 2 hours into our hike, Calvin begins to require short rests every few dozen meters. I can hardly blame him–his legs are half the length of everyone else’s and he’s clearly needing a break.
But I’m increasingly aware of my watch and the fact that the sun has already turned downward in the sky…
(See two of Cal’s “resting” poses above).
At about 2pm, when we are thinking we should reach the summit soon, two guys pass us going the other direction. One cheerfully claims that we are about halfway to the top.
This is when I mentally start rationing water (three bottles and dwindling) and food (we’ve got 4 bananas, 5 apples, and 10 granola bars… not much if we have to spend the night up on this hill in the dark) and reviewing survival facts. Suddenly our hike has gone from a reasonably-paced tramp that we thought would take about 6 hours to a race against the sunlight. Getting caught on this mountain for the evening or having to complete the circuit in the dark suddenly become my worst fears.
Then we hit snow.
And Calvin starts collapsing like a sack of lumpy and grouchy potatoes, which results in a tensing of my neck muscles and a shrillness in my voice.
We keep plodding along (is it possible to plod straight up a hill?), through patch after patch of snow, the longest one about 100 feet and no good way around. We put our layers back on and the girls talk about how they wish they had brought their gloves and hats. I secretly stop and refill a water bottle with snow, just in case.
And then, finally, we reach the summit.
It’s 3pm. The relief is palpable. And then we break it to the kids that we’ve got about an hour to hike along the ridgeline, totally exposed.
There’s a reason it’s called the BLOWHARD Trail… woah, does it ever! We do not pass another living soul, although we do pass through tussock, bush, brush, and high mountain beech that has blown sideways. Along both sides the views are stunning.
At this point we are nursing the kids along with granola bars and sincerely hoping that we can still make it back to the car, still a long way off, by dark.
At 4:11pm we meet up with the Bypass Track which will return us down Mount Richardson and back to the car… and if anything the trail is at a steeper grade than the way up. And the sign indicates that it’s 1 1/2 hours to the car. (Remember, the sun will set at 5:30.)
Charlotte really starts to get mopey and whiney, and Cal intermittently whimpers and throws his body down on the ground only to rise again if someone pulls him back up. We’re scrambling at this point, hoping to keep moving fast enough to safely descend before pitch darkness falls.
Clouds have rolled in and while it’s not raining or misty, the daylight is definitely dimming.
We’re joking around, trying to keep the kids in good spirits. We discuss ideal pets, butt cracks, the existence of ghosts, our favorite McDonald’s meals, and a myriad of other topics just to keep everyone’s minds off of the fact that we’ve now been hiking more than 5 hours with just a short lunch break and a couple infinitesimal stops to catch our breaths.
And then we hit mud again.
It’s the gloaming, but there’s nothing romantic about it.
Evelyn declares that now she knows why New Zealanders call it tramping: “even the word sounds like walking through mud.”
Finally, we reach a sign saying that it’s just 25 minutes to the carpark, and Calvin breaks down crying. “I need to be done right now. RIGHT. NOW.”
Busting it really fast the last 2 kilometers, we make it to the car, Cal in my arms, just as the darkness finally falls. 5:58pm.
We map the trail later on Google Maps pedometer, and it’s exactly 7 miles.
It’s no small triumph that our family not only reached the summit of our very first (real) mountain, but that we did so safely and in (relatively) good spirits! Best of all, we did NOT need to spend a long, cold, dark, exposed night on a mountain. I have seldom been as relieved to reach a car as I was at the end of our Mount Richardson adventure.