Coagulated rain in the Motatapu Valley

My Te Araroa - South Island Trail report had named the Motatapu Valley as the best Te Araroa route from Wanaka to Queenstown. It was scenic, it was safe, and as a connector between the South Island’s two most popular adventure towns it would get high use.

Old maps showed a walking route through the valley, but that was then. Motatapu station owner Don Mackay had closed it down ten years ago.

When compiling the trail report, I’d gone to see the Mackays. Don explained his position. He was a sheep and beef farmer. That was his skill, his occupation and tramping, biking, any kind of tourism was not. In the past, trampers had left his gates open, had left litter and human waste. For such reasons, he’d closed the access.

But the whole family talked through the walkway proposal that night and we agreed that the route through his station could be put in the trail report, tentatively. Options could involve outright purchase - “If the nation says it wants it,” Don Mackay said, “We’ll move over.” Alternatively if trampers paid a fee, the route might also be opened. The fee should be for huts, but someone other than Mackays would have to fund the huts, and maintain them.

Now, as I came away from Wanaka on my South Island walk, Don had agreed to let me test the route. That permission rapidly encompassed three others who jumped at the rare chance to go through the valley - Miriam,and two friends of Gilbert van Reenen, Max Wenden and Lisa Holliday. I walked up to the farmhouse, the others joined me there and we talked again with Don, his wife Sally, son Hamish and daughter in law Anna. Don offered use of one of the farm huts en route, and I thanked him and said again what I’d said at the last meeting - that if Te Araroa did come this way finally, we’d fund our own huts with some payment going back to the farmer. Don said again what he’d said last time - that hiking or any sort of tourism was not his thing, and he deferred to Hamish and Anna, who’d lately begun to take guided 4WD tours through the valley. I turned to Hamish -

“I’ll make you an offer within a year.”

“I’ll be looking over his shoulder when you do,” said Don.

“I’ll be looking over Don’s shoulder,” said Sally.

In the long light of morning, one group of six rams bunched in a tawny field, their faces turned toward us and the high country hills sloping away behind to snow-capped mountains. It was the quintessential South Island scene.

“Look at that!” Max stopped. He took off his pack, dug out his camera, got the shot.

Welcome back to the South Island Max. If for six months you’d seen hills that were just pure white. If there’d been no animals, not even a bird, and no long slant of morning light, just the sun doing a strange wobble in the sky all day, then what else could you do than stop dead for the
rams in this classic South Island setting. The two we walked with, Max and Lisa, were straight off the ice, he a pilot with Adventure Network International, she a field guide at Scott Base.

The day was fine and blue, and we walked as couples. For each couple it was the first walk together in a long time, and we left each other more or less alone.

The hut was 20 kilometres up the valley, and to get to it we’d be climbing just 300 metres. It was pleasurable long distance walking. Mountain ramparts stood off either side, but the hills of the Motatapu Valley floor were smoothly rounded, undulating, and the trail drooped away in front invitingly.

We did slow pleasurable things. Lisa was English-born, and at her suggestion we ate elevenses. We gathered mushrooms. Max spotted them first. And then everyone did. We followed the river up. We had one moment of route choice. Should we cross the river here ? We opened the map and studied it awhile. I was aware that one of Antarctica’s best navigators stood at my shoulder. In the days before GPS, and in a place where every direction was north, he’d navigated in a small aircraft upon a blank white ground using only a sun compass. The riverbank decision, I noticed, he left entirely to me. Left bank, right bank - it could be that riverbank decisions in an entirely one directional valley might not have registered as a navigation problem for Max.

The river valley turned sharply east, and a New Zealand falcon stood on the side of a hill, a bottle amid tussock as we came up, a rare and formidable predator that achieves 200 kph in a dive. The bottle sprouted wings, flew off and as we looked to the sky, big clouds were moving in.

Back in Wanaka before we left Gilbert van Reenen had checked the weather with a mate further south and predicted a cold southerly change. “There’s coagulated rain on Stewart Island - and that’s unusual.”

And now the weather came rapidly up from the south. Grey clouds and advancing squalls erased the horizon and softened every valley and ridge around us. Little white balls began to bounce amongst the tussock at our feet.

“This must be what Gilbert meant,” said Miriam, “by coagulated rain.”

We stopped and put on our parkas. Then the atmosphere seemed to pause. I said to Miriam -

“It’s got warm!”

And then it began to snow.

Snow. We turned out faces up to it delighted. I went to walk on, but someone pulled at my sleeve. I turned and her eyes were dancing -

“You know - I’m chuffed to be here with you in the first snow. I know that sounds silly and stupid, but I am.”

I stared into the shadows of the hood. We’d been together a long time and we both had memories. We’d once taken a bus around the South Island, exploring it together for seven months, and in a valley called Paradise at the top of Lake Wakatipu I’d been woken by the sudden quiet, had awoken her, and gone out into a magic night. The first snowfall of that
trip, and the first snowfall of this one. It was quiet again now. Two hoods came together in the valley.

A helicopter thudded low up the valley, flying the line where the big hill shoulders vanished into cloud. We came up to a gate. Both Don Mackay and a DoC hunter we’d met en route mentioned it. Once you got to the gate with ‘Boundary’ painted on it, they’d said, the hut was just upriver from there. This one had no paintwork on it though - wrong one. Yes it did, said someone, and sure enough if you stared long enough the letters took shape, old ghost letters that only someone who’d been around since before everything faded would ever readily identify as the word Boundary.

And sure enough, we rounded a river terrace and a hut stood there in the falling snow. This was the hut at the back of Don and Sally Mackay’s station, but used now too by Hamish and Anna for the 4WD trips. It was beautifully stacked with firewood and a can of beer stood on the table.

Max broke out a big Whisperlite that howled in the confines of the hut. I fired up my own Whisperlite, but the flame hardly hissed - there was a problem with pressure.

“It’ll be the jet,” said Max, “have you got a pricker?”


“Or maybe the pump.”

A couple of Antarctic experts suddenly descended on my Whisperlite. Max whipped out the pump mechanism while the stove was still going. The stove runs on white spirits - highly volatile - it was the sort of action you’d only do if you knew your stove intimately. Max held up the offending pump in the dim light of the hut, and spread the leather.

“A tiny bit of butter on that will make it work better,” said Lisa.

“Make sure you get a pricker,” said Max.

We made soup. We brewed coffee. The wood stack in the alcove suggested a fire. No, said the girls, conscious that we were guests of the Mackays and that every bit of wood here had been brought in by 4WD. Yes, said the boys, believing that the Mackays in this situation would understand that a fire in a hut snowed in and miles from anywhere was nothing more nor less than a back country right. We made the fire, but used only three chunks of wood. Smoke billowed into the hut. The boys went outside and studied the chimney. It had a pan on top. Max climbed the hut, took the pan, which was keeled and held steady by a rock on a wire, and moved it off the chimney top.

Max was a practical man, the kind of guy people talked about more than he talked about himself. Gilbert van Reenen told me Max had flown the Drake Passage in a Cessna 185, the fuel tank enlarged by plumbing in an extra barrel of gas strapped into the back of the plane, and just the way he said it conjured visions of a lot of desolate space and a very small aircraft. That was in 1987, bringing the Cessna to Antarctica. The aircraft later became known, for its orange paint job, and for popping up anywhere on the plateau, as the Polar Pumpkin. And it was Lisa who told me that to get from place to place on the polar plateau Max would fly the fuel barrels from his Patriot Hills Base to a forward depot, build that depot sufficiently to make the next hop, then fly more barrels forward to the next fuel cache, leapfrogging from base to desolate base into the interior. And that in the katabatic winds of Patriot Hills, Max’s plane sometimes flew by itself, lifted clear of the snow with only the tethers holding it down.

I stayed outside and stared at snow that was slowly blanketing the hills all around. I looked up and pure white flakes fell straight out of a dirty sky. Lisa was at the hut door -

“Enjoying the snow?” I asked.

“It’s pretty, it’s unexpected and special. And a bit of a busman’s holiday.”

And back in the hut she said -

“Strange. You spend so much time and money to make your own house a lovely place, but you get into a hut like this, absolutely basic, and you’re happy. Why is that?”

We ate happy food. Field mushrooms for dinner.

Evening came. Max and Lisa, with the ease of two people long practised in getting comfortable in small spaces, and making the most of body warmth. curled up together on a single bunk. Miriam and I did the same. Outside it continued to snow, and that was how we survived the night, in the company of two of Antarctica’s best survivalists.

Next day a stiff southerly sent more snow whirling in. We came through the pass at 900 metres our hoods up and depths of new snow creaking underfoot.

We joined with the 4WD track down the Arrow River Gorge, above heartstopping drops and past a sad cross for the driver who’d gone over the edge on these formidable chasms. We walked the old gold route, in the footsteps of 19th century miners. They’d flicked out plum stones as they went, and now we picked the old fashioned Damson plums from laden fruit trees alongside the track. We came in to Arrowtown and the newly whitened mountains stood all about.

“The ski fields will be rubbing their hands,” I said.

“No. It won’t hang around,” said Max, who knew something about snow and whose words anyway, when they came, repaid attention. “The ground is still warm. We need another couple of months of low-angle sun.”