Category Page: Hiking

The ‘Finest Walk in the World’: New Zealand’s Milford Track

In 1908, British journalist Blanche Edith Baughan  sat down at her desk and declared the Milford Track the ‘Finest Walk in the World’. That’s a rather bold statement in itself. Even more outlandish is the fact that Baughan had never set foot on the track herself. Still, like a newborn lamb grasping at its mothers teat, the Kiwis have latched on to this statement and touted it as a universal truth.

The reality is this; the Milford Track is a pretty damn fine hike. The finest? Who knows.. I don’t know what really constitutes fine in regards to judging a hike. If it’s related to the weather, the Milford wouldn’t have a leg to stand on. During the 3 days I experienced on the track, it stopped raining for approximately 17 minutes. That may be a slight exaggeration, though the clear weather windows were few and far between. Pretty standard for an area that averages 6-8,000mm of annual rainfall. Despite the gushing skies, it was an incredible hike and a thoroughly enjoyable experience overall.

I was joined on the trek by 3 buddies over from Australia; Eric, Matt & Nick, 2 of which I’d just completed the Routeburne with the day prior (stay tuned for the post- some of the best scenery I’ve witnesses). Now, I also want to preface this by disclosing that we did the ‘pampered’ version of the Milford walk, through a company called Ultimate Hikes . We stayed in lodges, had guides, ate like kings and had a drying room for our soggy clothes at the end of the day. Yes, you read that correctly. They have rooms to hang up your clothes so they’ll be crispy warm and dry in a few short hours. It was a guilty pleasure.

 

Day 1: Te Anau- Pompolona Lodge (17.5km, 4hours)

We caught the bus from the lakeside town of Te Anau and then took a short ferry ride through to the start of the track. Needless to say, it was already raining. The track starts off as a well maintained limestone path, leading to a little apprehension on my part that this was to be one of those near ‘wheelchair accessible’ walks, such as the Heaphy track further north.  Thankfully, we were soon walking through mud and my fears were relieved.

For much of the day the path winds through a relatively narrow passage skirted by high, waterfall laden valley walls. The prehistoric plant life is diverse and immense, multiple shades of luscious green, while the sky is blocked by thick fog overhead. It gives the feeling of enclosure, as though trekking through a Jurassic Park exhibit. The closest we came to spotting rare and exotic life was in the form of the elusive blue duck. For Matt, this was probably the highlight of his trip.

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Eric scoping out the scenery

Remember how I mentioned earlier we were staying in lodges? Well we strolled into our first one at about 2:30 on the first day and were greeted by fresh towels and the prospect of a warm shower. The guilt was oozing from my pores. That was soon taken care of by the perfectly pressured warm water… I honestly don’t know how I’m going to go back to multi-day tent expeditions after this experience. It may have ruined me.

After a little spiel about why we were doing the trek (we missed the introduction session on the first night, thank god) it was time to eat. Eat we did. Dinner was beef and rice with salmon balls for an entrée. That’s salmon meat rolled up into balls, not.. you get the idea. We promptly polished that off, got acquainted with a few of the other trekkers and hit the sack for an early night.

 

Day 2: Pompolona Lodge to Quntin Lodge + Sutherland Falls (20km, 5.5 hours)

Rising at 7 after a cozy sleep (bit warm actually. Too many blankets..) we hopped across to the dining area and made our lunches. Practically every sandwich making ingredient you can imagine was on offer and I attempted to use every one of them. We polished off a buffet style breakfast (no hashbrowns..) and took off on our way.

Today was to be the hardest of the trek. We were to make our way over Mckinnon Pass, a 600m odd elevation gain that was forecast to receive a smattering of snow the previous night. Leading us over the pass was our blonde, bright and bubbly guide, Veronica. Since this was technically a ‘guided’ trek, we weren’t supposed to be tearing around doing whatever we liked, a guide was supposed to be guiding us. Well, being tall and relatively fit young guys, we naturally liked to move rather quickly. This left Veronica in the position of having to stay ahead of us the whole way, which she handled well. Even more impressively, she was talking the whole time.. although I’m inclined to believe she would’ve pulled a Tonya Harding on us if given the chance.

Milford_track_mckinnon_pass

At the top of Mckinnon Pass, joined by our guides Veronica (left) and Adie (right)

The views from the top are spectacular.. so we found out in hindsight. It was completely fogged over when we were up there and visibility was about 30 metres. We raced down the other side (pretty fun decent down a small river bed) and rolled into camp (‘camp’ being a lodge with scones and coffee). We were ready for some waterfall action.

Sutherland Falls is New Zealand’s largest permanent waterfall, 580 vertical metres of H2O flowing over the side of a cliff. Of course, we had to get under it..

The waterfall attempted to intimate us with it’s roaring sounds and powerful winds we could feel from a good 50m away. We would not be deterred in our quest. We charged down the rocks (slipping several times) and planted ourselves at the base of the icy torrent, for about 3 seconds. We hastily retreated to the safety of the land above and posed for a victorious snap, like the conquering heroes we were. (Note: To be fair to Nick, he actually fully submerged himself in the small pool below the falls. Myself and the squid ran in after him, got blasted by the icy spray and sprinted back out.)

Milford_Track_Sutherland_Falls

The falls are home to a rare bread of squid, a species surprisingly efficient at running marathons..

 

Dinner that night was a Rib-eye steak with a mushroom soup as an entrée and crème brulee for desert. No, I’m not having you on.

 

Day 3: Quintin Lodge to Mitre Peak Lodge (21km, 5 hours)

The third day was more of the same; waterfalls galore. TLC should’ve hiked the Milford Track, she wouldn’t have had to chase shit..

Milford track

The sandflies were also out in force. Seriously, if you ever visit this region, be sure to pack a flamethrower of some sort. There doesn’t appear to be any other way to keep these little suckers off you. I had bites on my face over 2 weeks later from the sandfly attacks here.

We ventured passed waterfall 987 and were blessed with a truly rare sight in these parts. The sun. We basked in the golden rays of this celestial deity for a few moments before it disappeared for the day once more. Good riddance.. who needs it anyway?

We stopped at the end of the track for a lunch break before being herded onto a small boat which was to take across to our lodging for the night. Mitre Peak lodge is absolutely brilliant. It’s this old fashioned, timber based maritime style building which presents pretty incredible views from the majority of it’s twin-share rooms. It has a washing machine, the standard drying rooms and best of all, a pool table. This occupied us for much of the evening. Veronica partnered with me for a couple of games, appearing to deliberately sabotage the teams hopes of winning.. perhaps she was still harboring a little resentment from that day 2 escapade. Who knows. If you’re reading this Veronica, let it go.. Thankfully we still pulled out the win.

Oh yeh and most importantly; our dinner was a rack of lamb with potatoes and brownies with ice cream for desert. I have literally never eaten this well for 3 days straight in my life.

The following day was a cruise around the Milford Sound, taking in the sights that Captain Cook missed as he and his crew sailed straight passed the inlet. I’ll leave you with a couple of pics of the boat ride. Hopefully they’ll provide adequate justice to a setting my mediocre English would fail to sufficiently describe.

Milford_ track_sound

Mitre peak and its reflection provided quite an eyesore..

 

Milford track

Tongariro Alpine Crossing: New Zealand’s Premier Day-Trek

Continuing the New Zealand Great Walks theme, here’s a guest post from Clare, an avid hiker who’s just completed the Tongariro Alpine Crossing on New Zealand’s north island. She covers practically everything you’d need to know about the journey. Check it..

By Clare Groom, editor & blogger at Altitude Treks

Where: Tongariro National Park, North Island New Zealand

How long: 19.4Km, 12 miles (I took 7hr 15 minutes, but allow 7-9 hours)

Elevation gain: Start: 1100 m, Red Crater 1886 m, End 800 m

Often hailed as the “best one-day hike in New Zealand” (if not the world), the Tongariro Crossing is an alpine trek through the active volcanic zone of the central North Island. Past Emerald Lakes and steam vents emitting sulphurous fumes up to Blue Lake and through valleys and past volcanos. And views!

It simply had to be done.

My research had led me to “take it seriously”. The changeable mountain weather conditions can easily make the journey hazardous, and with exposed ridges and loose scree I had visions of myself hurtling headlong into a bubbling, stinky volcano.

So prepare I did. Taking the Department of Conservation’s advice, I duly packed clothing to see me from summer heat to winter blizzard. And “enough” food. I should mention here that “enough” food for me tends to mean elephantine servings of deliciousness that don’t feature in my daily eating habits!

Emerging from our winter hibernation, I had not been out in the bush for many months. So I dusted off my trusty hiking boots that had seen many successful Kilimanjaro summits – and carried me to Everest Base Camp. It felt good to be loading up my daypack again and heading for the hills.

New Zealand’s weather is a fickle witch. If the weather forecast is bad, the trail will be closed. However, just because the trail is open doesn’t mean it’s guaranteed to be safe. What starts out as a crystal clear day can rapidly turn wintry. And Search & Rescue takes a dim view of rescuing people from a mountain who are dressed for the beach.

At 6am on the 23rd October, we waited by the roadside in a small town called Turangi, for a bus to take us to the trailhead. It was a clear morning, cold, with frost on the ground. I was glad I had packed the extra layers. On the half-hour drive to Tongariro National Park we were afforded amazing views of Mt Ruapehu, still snow-covered and the dramatic Mt Ngauruhoe – famously Mt Doom in Lord of the Rings.

Revelling in the wilderness, we were slightly taken aback at the trail-head where numerous buses were jostling for position. The queues for the toilets were long, it suddenly felt as though we’d happened into a theme park or something. Note: I would not advise doing this crossing in the height of summer, as there can be over a thousand people on the trail at the weekends!

Undeterred, we set off on the trail, the sun shining bright and the day promising to be clear. Mt Ruapehu loomed bright and white to our right, and the trail mostly flat…

Mangatepopo Car Park to Soda Springs (~1-1.5 hours)

The first part of the trail is flat or with a gentle incline. Alpine plants predominate, with tussocky grasses and heathers. The sun quickly burnt off any residual frost. The trail is typical of New Zealand – well maintained, with boardwalks across the boggy parts (this helps to protect the fragile environment, it’s not just for the trekkers convenience).

Tongariro Alpine CrossingRounding a corner, we get our first view of Mt Ngauruhoe, looming ominously in the distance. A perfect stratovolcano, with the top still covered in the remnants of snow, it’s easy to see how this sacred mountain was the inspiration for Peter Jackson’s Mt Doom.

Tongariro Alpine Crossing

So far, so good. A lovely easy hike through dramatic countryside, and an opportunity to make a big dent in my food supplies… in spite of a hearty breakfast, food was on my mind.

This part of the trek is by far the easiest. We climb out of the valley and after a couple of uphill sections, there is a flat, rather barren-looking plateau. The heather at the start of the trail gradually recedes, leaving only the tussocky grasses and rough alpine plants in the moorland zone. Rocks underfoot and scree remind us that we are in a volcanic region.

Soda Springs is a 15-30 minute diversion off the main track – and the toilets mark the end of this section.

Rounding a corner, it’s clear that the easy part is over…

Soda Springs to South Crater (~1 hour)

Through the volcanic rock and scree, we are greeted by this signpost:

Tongariro Alpine Crossing

Undeterred, we pressed on. Up the Devil’s Staircase. This section is steep, from 1400-1600m, hiking across lava flows, both ancient and modern. The track is rough, it’s hard-going and I was out of breath quite quickly. After about an hour of this – with fantastic views down the valley and a peek of Mt Taranaki in the distance, we got to the top.

Tongariro Alpine Crossing

A quick rest to get my breath back was a perfect opportunity for a bit more food. I was enjoying this “eat as much as you like, when you like”.

The Devil’s Staircase is a tough hike. But taking it slowly, enjoying the views and resting when needed – it’s easy. The views are spectacular, how lucky we were to have such a clear day!

South Crater to Red Crater (~1 hour)

A chance to catch our breath, the flat plateau is partially covered with snow. The dramatic Mt Doom towers over us. We had wanted to climb to the summit of Mt Ngauruhoe but the previous day two people had been badly injured in a rock slide and it was out of bounds. Onwards we went, enjoying the bleak and inhospitable land, but well aware of the steep ridge ahead of us that we would need to scale.

Tongariro Alpine Crossing

As we reached the ridge, the combination of compacted snow and scree made the trail slippery and I almost fell on my backside a couple of times. I was glad I’d brought my hiking pole! Much more rugged than the Devil’s Staircase, the trail climbs up slippery, exposed tracks, climbing over rocks with a rather precipitous drop to one side.

Sections of this path have chains – and with the frost on the ground we were quite literally hauling ourselves up with our arms, unable to get a proper foothold. I won’t lie, it was exhausting and only a little bit terrifying at times!

At the top of the ridge we were starting to heave a big sigh of relief that the worst was over. How wrong we were! The last part of the ridge, around the Red Crater, is a slippery, narrow track, exposed on both sides. I can’t imagine what it would be like on a windy day. Abandoning my reputation, I decided to proceed through the steeper parts on my hands and knees. I was fully aware of what an idiot I must have looked.

Tongariro Alpine Crossing

Arriving at Red Crater – I could smell it before I could see it – and finally looking up from my study of the track ahead I was greeted by vistas that have to be seen to be believed. Photographs don’t show the half of it. Over the Otuere Valley, the Rangipo Desert, out over the Kaimanawa Ranges. How lucky we were to have such a clear day!  

The Red Crater – it really is red, from the iron deposits – drops away steeply, deep into the volcano, steam wafts from the fumaroles, it’s like another planet. Mt Doom watches over, close-by now.

Next stop, those glorious Emerald Lakes.

But first… downhill.

Red Crater to Emerald Lakes (~15-20 minutes)

I’ll say it. I hate downhill. It always seems preferable to the relentlessness of uphill – but loose scree on a slippery slope and I do not get along. As I cling to a rock, easing myself off the lip of the Red Crater, I immediately start to slip. The descent is exposed, and the only way to remain upright was to crab-step and go very, very slowly.

I know, on Kilimanjaro I “skied” down the scree, fast and furious, crashing frequently. The steep drops on either side meant this was not an option, and after several hard-landings on my backside, I arrived at the Emerald Lakes.

They really are an Emerald color. Their colour comes from leached minerals. Sulphur deposits can be seen on the slopes, and the scent of rotten eggs pervades from the surrounding steam vents.

Tongariro Alpine Crossing

I had a celebratory sandwich, and worried that I was getting low on food.

Emerald Lakes to Blue Lake (~30 minutes)

Another short descent, a muddy and snow-slushy hike across a crater and it’s uphill again to the Blue Lake. This uphill section is short, and after what I’d been through climbing to Red Crater, nice and easy.

It really is Blue! A cold acidic lake, sacred in Maori tradition, apparently it is disrespectful to eat or drink on her shores. A blue lake with a bright white “beach” of snow. By this time we were feeling exhilarated. Knowing the worst of the climbing was behind us, we just revelled in the beauty of the pristine environment. Reflecting on how lucky we were to have a cloudless day with little wind. Feeling strong, we moved on, thinking ahead to that nice glass of wine back in town.

Tongariro Alpine Crossing

 

Blue Lake to Ketetahi Hut (~1 hr)

Leaving the Blue lake, we climb to the edge of the North Crater then descend into the gorge. The landscape becomes less bleak and the heath and moorland plants are in evidence again. A few more ups-and-downs and we get a view of our destination in the distance. And then it starts… the relentless downhill.

Relentless it certainly was. I mentioned I hadn’t worn my hiking boots in several months. My toenails were crying out in pain, threatening to go black and leave me. My creaking knees were complaining and it went on. And on. The track is well-maintained and the alpine zone is fascinating, with wonderful views over Lake Taupo.

After the first hour, I’d had enough. I was tired and grumpy. Even eating yet another sandwich didn’t help. My feet hurt and my knees hurt and it was down down down.

Arriving at Ketetahi Hut for a short rest stop, the end felt nigh.

Ketetahi Hut to Ketetahi Car Park (~2 hours)

Oh no, more of the same. The moorland gave way to thicker, heather-type bush and the temperature was warmer, with no icy mountain winds. The path continues downhill for what feels like hours. Then the forest appears. A dense, montane forest, with a roaring stream through it.

And an ominous sign “if you hear a noise from upstream, do not enter” – it’s a live volcanic area and the Department of Conservation advises you to move quickly and not delay!

By this point, my spirits started to lift. The forest was beautiful and the path flattened out and my toes and knees allowed me to enjoy the hike once again. Winding through the forest and over a little bridge, eventually the hustle and bustle of the car park appears.

I did it! Very happy to have made good time, I could now look forward to getting out of my hiking boots and sipping the inevitable glass of wine.

Closing Thoughts

The Tongariro Alpine Crossing, in good weather is a fantastic experience. In poor weather, it could be pretty miserable, if not dangerous. Whilst the climb to Red Crater is hard, there is a great sense of achievement on getting to the top and seeing the incredible views that this part of New Zealand has to offer. The walk out can get a bit boring as it feels you have done what you came to do – and still the hike goes on. I may have felt differently about the last few hours if my feet weren’t hurting.

Overall – well worth it for an amazing day out!

Recommendations

  • Check the weather with MetService before you go and remember that it’s a mountain region, and it’s volcanic. The weather can change quickly, so be prepared.
  • Wear sturdy hiking boots as the terrain is uneven and rocky.
  • Take rain gear and layers in case the weather changes suddenly. Don’t underestimate the cold mountain winds.
  • Take plenty of food and water. It’s a strenuous hike at times and you need to stay hydrated.
  • If you are in doubt, do not climb to Red Crater, turn back and try again some other time!
  • Sunscreen & sunglasses – the New Zealand sun can be brutal.
  • Take a bus from your accommodation, as your start point is different from your end point. The bus also provides a layer of security as they know when you are due to come down from the mountain. If you don’t meet the last bus, they will call Search & Rescue.

Hiking the Heaphy Track: Worthy of Great Walk Status?

The Heaphy Track was the second of New Zealand’s great walks to be ticked off by yours truly, having completed the Abel Tasman a couple of years back. I was up at the top of the South Island once again so I decided to give it a whirl; I’d heard positive reviews so expectations were high. The Heaphy also has a bit of history in my family; my mum, aunt and grandparents having completed the walk over 40 years ago. I imagine it would be almost unrecognisable today.

My very first comment: this is probably the cruisiest type of ‘trekking’ I’ve ever done (tramping as they call it over here).  The huts were perhaps the most impressive I’ve seen on this type of hike (although we camped), while the track was incredibly well maintained. There were machines in operation along the way that looked like they tidied up and compressed the path. I personally prefer a little more ‘wilderness’ in my hikes but I can imagine the work that goes into this track would appeal to many.

Secondly, I was expecting a little more in the way of the spectacular views I’ve come to expect of New Zealand. While the ocean vistas and tussocky planes were certainly appreciated, the vast majority of the walk took place in forest. Now don’t get me wrong, I LOVE forest, it just gets a little repetitive after 3 days. There were none of those breathtaking mountain or lakeside views that can make up for hours of trudgery and make a trip worthwhile even for a brief glimpse.

With those observations out of the way, the Heaphy Track is still a pleasant hike, worth a look if you’re in the region. It’s a great fitness booster and could be a decent challenge if you took it on in 3 days or so. We chose to stick to the typical 4 day option and this is how it turned out…

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A map detailing all huts and elevations along the Heaphy Track

 

Day 1

Transport to the track from either end can be a bit of a pain in the ass. I was looking at shuttle options which run through Motueka (from Nelson) and cost around $65. Fortunately, I met a German girl who happened to be doing the trek at the same time I’d planned to. She had a couple of friends dropping her off and then picking her up from the other side. Absolute bonus.

I was picked up in Motueka around 10 and we were dropped off at Browns hut a couple of hours later. This marked the start of the track on it’s Eastern end. Practically the whole first day was up a gentle gradient to the Perry Saddle Hut and our campsite for the night. It took us around 4 hours to cover the 17.5km.

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This was the campsite for the night. The highlight came at about 8pm. An older English fellow who was hiking with his son decided it was going to be more comfortable sleeping in the shelter there than a tarp his son had set up. It was raining pretty hard at the time. About an hour after he’d hunkered down to sleep, one of the young girls staying in the hut came out to brush her teeth. She stopped just before the sleeping Englishman and shone her headlamp directly on his head for a good 30 seconds. This of course woke him up and he peered up in a daze to try and work out what the hell was going on. She finally realised what she was looking at and moved on. I’m in tears just writing about the incident.. I don’t know why but fuck it was funny.

 

Day 2

My new tent held up to the rain soaked night and we awoke on the second morning to find a relatively clear sky. This was to be a rare occurrence. There were very few stretches of sunshine throughout the whole 4 days, thick cloud hung about for the majority, usually spewing out hefty doses of rain.

After a light breakfast we packed up at a leisurely pace and were on our way for the day. 2 hours in we were still enveloped in forest and growing a little skeptical about the ‘views’ we’d read about on this track. A few minutes later we were out of the treeline and strolling through tussocked planes stretching across rolling hills for as far as the eye could see.
Heaphy_Track

 

There were also some pretty awesome swing bridges along the way…

Heaphy_Track_River

 

We covered the 24 odd kilometres to James Mackay hut in 5:45, stopping a few times along the way for snacks and pics. Now, I feel like I’ve already done enough complaining in this post already but I have 1 more to make. The ‘campsites’ at James Mackay are in fact elevated wooden platforms. Presumably they’ve done this to level out the fairly uneven terrain at this spot but these wooden slabs don’t make great sites to pitch a tent. Particularly so if you don’t have a sleeping pad..

Besides this minor grievance it was a nice venue with a distant glimpse of the ocean. The sunset was also pretty awesome..

Heaphy_Track_Sunset

 

Day 3

Practically all downhill.. The 21km to Heaphy Hut took us 4 hours 45. Awesome campsite. Completely separate to the hut with a little shelter and fire-pit for those clear nights. We didn’t get one of those unfortunately, although we did get a fire blazing for a couple of hours. At this site, you’re camping in proximity ot the Heaphy river, making for a nice change of scenery. The river also provides a nice little refresher if you’re game. Be warned, it is damn cold.

This was the first time either of us were introduced to the little New Zealand terroriser known as the sandfly. Holy shit. Sitting here writing this 4 days after a night at this spot and I’m still scratching like a meth addict.Those little fuckers are fierce. Completely relentless. Make sure you pack the most powerful insect spray you can find.

Heaphy_Track_campsite

 

Day 4

The final day was probably the most impressive scenery wise. The morning had us walking through palm filled forests with abundant birdlife singing out harmonic melodies. There were also a couple of gigantic fig trees just off to the side of the track..

Heaphy_Track_Trees

Which meant I had to channel my inner Tarzan..

 

This forest trundled lasted about an hour before we finally reached the notoriously rough West Coast ocean.

Capes on capes on capes..

Capes on capes on capes..

Definitely the most scenic part of the trek. A day trek/overnighter from Kohaihai to the Heaphy Hut would be well worth it. A few more bridge crossings and we were finished.

Heaphy_Track_Bridge

The final days hike took us 4 hours on the money. Our ride was waiting for us at the finish and we were promptly on the way to Westport. Just in time for a sneaky pint or two.

Stirling Ridge Walk: Western Australia’s Best Hike

Yep, I’m calling it. Having finished the Cape to Cape earlier this year, as well as large swathes of the Bibbulmun, I can say this one tops it. No other hike in Western Australia offers the experience as provided along the Stirling Ridge walk. It had been on the list for a while but to be honest, low expectations had put me off. I’d been up Bluff Knoll and a few other peaks in the area and while providing a pleasant outing, weren’t really worth the long drive from Perth. I’m happy to eat my words on this one.

I was joined on the trek by a mate of mine, a welcome change from the usual solo endeavors. Early June was our time frame, perhaps not the best choice from a weather perspective but we decided to rough it.  From a few of the reviews we read you’d assume this hike was equivalent to a venture into the Alaskan wilderness. Exposed ridges, arduous slopes, shit, even cyclonic winds were mentioned. I also read somewhere that 2 out of 3 treks that started didn’t complete it. Either someone was having a laugh or we were leaving Western Australia. We decided to risk our lives and do it anyway.

 

Day 1

Embarking from Perth at 6am, we reached the Bluff Knoll campsite after 6 or so hours of looong, tedious driving. Parking the car up and grabbing our gear, we got a lift out to the East end of the track by an old gentleman from the camp. The long ride was made enjoyable after the driver mistakenly thought my friend, a female, was actually a man. I was in hysterics for quite some time. Small minds are easily amused as they say..

We’d heard traversing the ridge from East to West is the way to go, it provides a clear landmark in Bluff Knoll at to work towards and is a little closer to civilisation at the finish. Here’s a map of the whole thing. There’s a 5km walk along a firebreak to get to the start of the trek. While not generally amusing, my friend had a good laugh (& got one back) when I fell over in some mud. I immediately regretted wearing old, worn down running shoes..

Stirling_Ridge_walk

Looking up at the ridge, our home for the next 3 days.

At last we reached the base of the ridge. From here there’s a rather steep section up to the little knob of Ellens Peak (far left in the photo above). From there you can either go up the peak and back down the other side, or scramble around either side of it. We went around the northern side which involved a bit of a dip, then scrambling back up to get onto the ridge (just to the right of the peak).

We continued along the trail for another couple of hours, by which time the daylight was starting to fade. Time to look for one of the fabled ‘sleeping caves’ we’d read about. We tried to find the cave which was supposedly on the North side of the ridge. A GPS we’d brought along showed it was in our immediate vicinity but after a good hour of searching, we were out of luck and out of light.

We resorted to sleeping outside on the sloping ridge. That was an interesting one. Thank god we’d chosen a period of clear weather. Finding a spot free of vegetation, we laid out the sleeping bags and after a hearty feed, attempted sleep. We’d doze for a little while, wake up and find ourselves a meter down in the tussock, having to crawl back up the slope again. I don’t recommend it. Find a cave.

 

Day 2

One perk of sleeping on the northern slope was the view it afforded us of the sunrise. All the sunrises and sunsets were pretty special along the ridge. Following an extended bout of admiration fro the glories of nature, we packed up the kit, had a quick bite and were on our way again.

The sunrises were unreal..

The sunrises were unreal..

Pushing on for a couple of hours, we came across an awesome cave that should’ve been our shelter for the night. The spot was incredible. It would’ve taken a big first day but should be quite doable. I don’t actually know the name of the spot but I’m sure you’ll find it on any Stirling Ridge Walk guide or map.

The terrain on this trek was a great deal more interesting and often challenging than I first suspected. For the majority of the first 2 days, you’re contending with brush and scrub that covers the track. When applied to the Stirling Ridge Walk, ‘track’ can be a fairly ambiguous term. Although there is often a fairly well defined trail, much of the route is open for interpretation as far as the best course to proceed. Cairns; piled rock markers are generally the only form of navigation you’ll find. 

Stirling_Ridge_walk

Scoping out the journey ahead

Once again, we timed things badly and were left without a cave to sleep in by the time the darkness began to take hold. At this point we were actually up on top of one of the ‘arrows’ (what they call 3 of the peaks in this range)  so we decided to make our camp there. Not the best choice.. there was a little more wind up here and I shivered through a rather chilly night. Again, the views well and truly made up for it.

dscn1837

Another incredible sunset.. from our perch atop one of the arrows.

 

Day 3

We kicked off the third and final day with our sights set on the big dog the range, Bluff Knoll. I really can’t remember the times we hiked each day, I’d hazard a guess and say roughly 6 hours for the first and 7 or 8 for the last two. The last one in particularly took a little longer then expected.

There was far less scrub on this section of the Route, rather mud and steep banks were our biggest challenge. I landed on my ass quite a few times, much to the amusement of my companion. Once again, please don’t use old runners on this trek..

We had to lower our bags via rope at one point..

We had to lower our bags via rope at one point..

When we were dropped off at the East end by the camp manager, he warned us several times not to take car keys up there; apparently several sets had been lost over the years. By the third day I had lost a shirt and the end of my trekking pole (which I never even used..) and my friend had lost her camera. It’s quite easy to drop things and have them torn away by the brush. Keep your gear tucked up inside your pack.

Another thing, the wind.. holy hell. I made a mock comment on a review that referred to the wind as ‘cyclonic’. Well, while that may be a slight exaggeration, it is damn strong. It was present on the first days along sections but it wasn’t until day 3 that we felt its full force. It’s legit!

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Hard to capture the wind in a photo but this may give you some idea

Sauntering on, we finally approached the last climb up to the top of Bluff Knoll. Upon reaching the summit plateau, we were greeted by a complete white-out. Yep, we got lost as all hell. Thankfully the GPS finally did it’s job and we found our way to the summit marker and the well marked path back down the other side.

The end in sight

The end in sight

 

Recommendations

  • Use these maps from Torridon Publications, they are amazing. Laminating them first would be a brilliant idea that I’ve only come up with in hindsight.
  • Take as much water as you can carry. We took roughly 7-8 litres each and got through that before we’d finished. There are practically no places to refill once you’re up on the ridge so think twice before splashing water over your hands or even using it in your cooking prep.
  • Take a warm sleeping bag, especially in winter. Mine was 0 rated I believe and I was freezing my nuts off. We did sleep out in the open where the wind chill factored in but still, it gets cold out there. Bring a -5 rated sleeping bag if possible.
  • Don’t attach anything to the outside of your pack. My rollup mattress got torn to shreds and we each lost a shirt to the thieving scrub. You’re constantly pushing through often dense growth and whatever is attached to your pack will take the brunt of it.

 

Cape to Cape: Exploring Western Australia’s Coast

The Cape to Cape track is a 135km hiking trail located in Western Australia’s south-west region. It extends from the lighthouse at Cape Naturalist (near the town of Dunsborough) to the lighthouse at Cape Leeuwin (near Augusta). The trail passes through dense coastal shrub, across pristine white and golden sanded beaches, canopied forest paths and over ocean-side cliff and rock formations. It’s considered perhaps Western Australia’s premiere long-distance trail and up there among the best in Australia. It had been on my to-do list for a long time and last week, I finally got around to completing it.

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I think if I’m being honest, the reason I had put it off so long, was that I really didn’t expect it to be that amazing. I’ve been on hikes all around the world now, on 6 continents and I didn’t think something in my own backyard would compare.. turns out I was way off the mark. It is truly a spectacular hike, the views are incredible and the diversity of scenery and environments keep things fresh as you walk.

Friends of the Cape to Cape, the organisation that maintains the track, recommend taking 6/7 days to complete the whole thing. Being a somewhat cocky-smart-ass, I decided to try and do it in 3. I manged it in 4. Some sort of virus on day 1 and an over-heavy pack slowed me down, really though I’d just underestimated the track. There is a LOT of sand-walking. I’d estimate 25% is either along the beach or through sandy trails a few steps off the coast. This is really hard going. It’s slow-paced and causes havoc on your calves and Achilles tendons. Keep this in mind if you’re preparing to do it yourself.

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What to Bring..

Water, water, water. The one thing the cape to cape track is really lacking is adequate water supply. The only options really available are the 4 campsites (rainwater tanks) or to buy it from small towns along the way. There are also a couple of small streams you can use, as long as you have iodine tablets or boil the water prior to drinking it. Ensure you can carry at least 3 litres at a time and refill these every time you get the chance. Food shouldn’t really be a problem.

Otherwise just standing camping/hiking fare; tent, sleeping bag, headlight, hiking shoes (be prepared to take them off regularly to get the sand out), adequate food & suitable utensils, bug spray and appropriate clothing. Rain gear is a necessity, for yourself and your pack. Warm clothes are only necessary through the colder months, probably May-August/September. I didn’t wear a jumper once on my trip.

You can probably get away without a tent even if you choose to stay in the towns along the way. There should be accommodation options at least every 20km or so. If you do decide to camp, I believe there are 4 or 5 official campsites with very basic amenities you can take advantage of. Otherwise you can do as I did and camp along the beach.. Technically this isn’t allowed but you won’t get to experience too much adventure in life if you stick to the rules.. If you don’t leave rubbish behind and don’t destroy any vegetation there is really know harm in camping on the sand.

Plus you get to experience the incredible sunrises and sunsets on display, such as this one..

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Wildlife..

Another pleasant surprise was the diversity of fauna and flora. Lizards by the hundred, birds, bandicoots, kangaroos, feral cats, schools of salmon, shark warnings, a pod of dolphins 10m off-shore and 2 snakes, both of which I nearly stepped on. As I was walking through the thick coastal shrub on day 3, I was rounding a corner and nearly put my foot down on top of a yellow-bellied Tiger Snake. I was about 10km from the nearest town.. so needless to say if it bit me, I would’ve been in a little bit of trouble.

There were shark warnings at practically every beach along the way and the constant buzz of a helicopter could be heard overhead, keeping an eye out for them. The driver who gave me a lift to my car on the way back was telling me a story of a close-encounter a week earlier.

He had been with some friends at the beach, the friend and her daughter were swimming in waist deep water about 10 metres out. They eventually came in and were promptly passed a pair of binoculars to look at the area they were just swimming in. They saw a large grey shadow slowly moving through the waist deep water and were a little confused as to what it was.. The guy told them it was in fact a great white shark, at least 3.5m in length and they were very lucky to have come in when they did.. The coast guard was alerted and the beach promptly cleared. I doubt they’ll be going out in the water for a while..

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About to launch a sneak attack..

The Views..

Caught me completely off guard.. I really wasn’t expecting the scenery I was confronted with over the 4 days. I’ll let the photos speak for themselves..

cape to cape trek

 

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Cape to Cape

Check out my Instagram: @7summitsproject for more..

 

 

Cordon Del Plata: Trekking in the Heart of the Argentinian Andes

At the frontier of the Argentinian Andes, around 100km West of Mendoza (the wine capital of Argentina), lies a spectacular boot-shaped valley lined with an array of rocky, ice covered peaks. This place is known as Cordon Del Plata and it’s home to an array of peaks ranging from 3,500m right up to 6,000m. It is one of the more popular trekking destinations in this region of the  Andes and it’s easy access and diversity makes it a prime training/acclimatisation ground for those looking to venture off to the larger and more challenging peaks such as Mt Aconcagua.

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Mendoza, the home-base for many Andes climbing escapades, is well worth a visit in of itself. It is the key wine growing region in Argentina and produces some delicious Malbec. Might be best to pay a visit after your climbing is done.. it’s very easy to go overboard. It’s also one of the greenest cities I’ve seen, every street being enveloped by a canopy of beautiful green trees that line the sidewalks.

 

After catching a bus or organising a transfer from either Mendoza or Portrerillos (more details below) you will find yourself amongst the refuges at the start of Cordon del Plata. You can stay in one of these if you choose, they will cost around 150 pesos for a dormitory style bed and can provide food and any gear you need. I stayed in one on my first trip and although convenient, they are not ideal if you want to climb some of the peaks (but great if you just want to hike up through the valley for a day or 2).

If you have your own camping equipment, you will want to continue up an hour or so to the first main site, Vega. It’s up at 3,200m so it’s not a bad idea to stop here for at least 1 night to acclimatise. There are several creeks running through the camp that provide fresh, glacier run-off agua that is perfectly suitable for drinking. On another note, make sure your tent is sound. The ‘Katabatic’ winds here are FIERCE and I’ve read several accounts of trekkers tents getting torn up in the higher camps. The winds will literally come in from any direction so make sure your tent is secured at all sides. I made the mistake of getting one side down pat only to have the winds switch direction. My tent was completely lifted up and would’ve been carried off down the valley had I not had my bags inside.

 

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I made 2 trips up to Cordon del Plata, the first to scope it out and the second to spend a bit of time there in the hope of getting some residual acclimatisation for an Aconcagua expedition. The second trip I spent 6 days there in total, with the idea of climbing some of the 4-5,000m peaks in the area. Unfortunately, the cheeky bastard ‘El Nino’ was in full affect, dumping a near record amount of snow on the Andes during that period. I didn’t bring crampons or an Ice-axe (my pack was already 30+kg) and therefore had to settle with one of the lesser peaks and simply trekking up to the highest camp. It certainly served its purpose though, I spent the whole period above 3,200m and felt a significant improvement when I trekked up passed camp El Salto, to around 4,350m  on the final day.

I will have to come back at some point and climb El Plata, the 6,000m peak at the end of the valley that supposedly has spectacular views over the whole of the range. Quite a few people I had talked to either were attempting or had attempted the summit, not one of them having reached the mark.

If you are looking to do some climbing up there, I highly recommend you check out the Summit Post guide for Cordon Del Plata. They have detailed reports for each peak and from individuals with a lot more knowledge and experience than myself.

 

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A few tips…

Getting There

From Mendoza, there are a few different options.

  • You can get a direct transfer from wherever you are situated. This service will pick you up from your hotel and drop you at the start Cordon, above the last refuge. It is costly however, at the time of writing this (Dec 2015) a one-way trip cost 1,200 pesos ($120 ‘official’ USD). Obviously the best way to do this is to share with 2 or 3 others.
  • You can get a bus to Portrerillos, the town located at the base of the range, then get a transfer from there. This chops the transfer fee in half and a bus ticket only costs 21 pesos.
  • Finally, you can get a bus up to ‘Las Vegas’ and walk the rest of the way. From the dropoff it’s about 12km and over 1,000 vertical metres to the first camp. I did this once with 30kg worth of crap during a very hot day. It wasn’t overly pleasant. It is by far the cheapest option though and gives you a hell of a workout.

*Bus tickets can be purchased from a particular stand at the main terminal. From memory there is only 1 or 2 places that sell them.

 

Hiring Gear

If, like me, you have come to Argentina inadequately equipped to tackle snow drenched 6,000m peaks, you will need to hire some to get the job done. Fortunately, Mendoza has plenty of options and makes it easy to travel light and only hire the necessary gear when you’re ready to climb.

The following companies are the best I found..

  • Aconcagua Equipment Rental: Espejo 593, Mendoza
  • Chammonix: Barcala 267, Mendoza
  • Limite Vertical: Sarmiento 675, Mendoza

Here’s a guide as to the prices you can expect to pay..

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