Adventure: Hiking Lewis Pass to St Arnaud (Part 1)

Note — This is part 1 of 3 in a series. See part 2 here and part 3 here.

Live your life as an experiment.

— Chögyam Trungpa Rinpoche

I thrive on adventure, but how can one plan for genuine adventure? What details an experience such that one would call it adventure? More philosophically, if one can plan such an experience in detail ahead of time, is it really an adventure?

Usually I just slowly germinate half formed schemes in the recesses of my brain until I eventually try to make them happen in reality. And so it was that at noon on Monday April 4 Janel dropped me off in Lewis Pass with a promise to meet me in St Arnaud at 5pm on Saturday.

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Yeah, those magenta points are roughly 100km apart through wilderness

Thankfully my sense of adventure is much more like an experiment — I hypothesize that with a 24kg pack, a set of maps with a planned route, an emergency locator beacon, and a high degree of fitness, knowledge, skill and desire I will make it to some beautiful places and enjoy the communion with nature. Have I hiked this part of New Zealand before? No. Have I done a 6 day hike before? No. Have I even done a solo multi-day hike before? Sort of (the great walks in New Zealand are much easier and catered than what I had planned). There were many firsts that would happen during this adventure, but the key point is that even with all of my preparation this was still an experiment that could have ended in spectacular failure aboard a medevac helicopter.

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Ready to take my first steps. Did not realize I would see only 2 other humans over the next 28 hours.

I’m not the greatest story teller, so I have created a short form to describe each day, captioned the photos, and will summarize the journey at the end. This is the first of three posts.


Day 1: Monday April 4

Start/End: Lewis Pass/Christopher Hut

Distance: 27.5km

Elevation Gain: 200m

Time: 6 hours

Trail type: Forrest, field

Conditions: Mostly rain, well-formed and graded track

Difficulty: Easy

A lovely walk on the St James Walkway through Ada Pass to Ada valley. Sounds of the Ada river and birdsong most of the way. Encountered one older couple about an hour in who was hiking the walkway for the second time in commemoration of a trip they took 20 years ago. They would be the last humans I would encounter for 28 hours. The only real challenges of the day were making it to the hut before sunset (I made it with about 45 minutes to spare) and the rain (mostly offset by forrest cover).

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Topographical map with my route in magenta. Early part of the route not shown to the left. I had print copies of these maps in my pack in case I got lost (I didn’t). The maps are courtesy of the Te Araroa, New Zealands national trail which is shown in red. My route follows the Te Araroa for parts of Day 2, 3, and 4.
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Early in my forrest walk before the rain started. The dappled sunshine and green moss were a joy for the first several hours of the St James Walkway.
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Looking down over the river from Cannibal Gorge bridge. The walkway only crossed this river once and it was bridged.
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The clouds and rain rolled in during the early afternoon and stayed with me over the field walks in Ada valley.
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Looking out from Christopher Hut towards the Ada valley.
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Made myself a lovely fire in the hut and curled up beside it to sleep as the outside temperature dropped close to 2-3C.

Day 2: Tuesday April 5

Start/End: Christopher Hut/Upper Waiau Forks

Distance: 25km

Elevation Gain: 300m

Time: 8 hours

Trail type: Forrest, field, rock morraine, river

Conditions: Clear, well-marked but sometimes overgrown or re-routed path

Difficulty: Easy+

A bit of a messy walk to cut over from the St James Walkway to the Waiau Pass Track (which the Te Araroa uses). I had a bit of an backtrack as I chose the wrong trail to follow through some long grass and ended up on the opposite side of a fence. Wound my way back around the still privately owned Ada homestead and sloshed through several side streams/mud tracks. I would end up needing to cross dozens of these wet and muddy zones throughout the day with half a dozen unbridged river crossings. Luckily none of them were dangerous and max height was only to my knee. I wouldn’t encounter a person all day until around 4PM. It was just me and the lovely rivers, mountains, and blue sky to keep me company. I set up my tent at an informal campsite at the base of the mountains I would cross the next day. The most challenging problem today was realizing my camera had somehow remained on during part of Day 1 — I would now need to quickly snap a photo and immediately shut off the camera to preserve what little battery was left for the 6 day hike.

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The bivvy in the picture was small and cramped and with only 2 beds it could not be relied on to be available. This was the day I knew I would have to camp so that is the reason I had a full tent and bed roll.
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Early morning looking over the Ada homestead south towards the valley created by the Waiau river.
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Mid day hiking along side the Waiau. Note the rock morraine to the left that I would need to walk on to avoid walking in the river. This is a common feature of New Zealand tramps as avalanches dump tons of rock down the side of mountains towards the rivers below. Also note how the shadows from the mid afternoon sun are formed by the high ridge lines of mountains on both sides of the track.
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Made it before dark! Pitched my tent under the designated area on a fairly soft bed of leaves and chips from beech trees.

–James

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