When I’m traveling I’m always on the lookout for local favorites. Whether it’s restaurants, shops, or swimming holes I make a point to ask people in the know about their favorite experiences. This is what led me, two years ago, to ask Mark Morrison of Wildwire Wanaka what his favorite backcountry hut was. Mark was a mountain guide for years in the Southern Alps and I figured he’d have the goods. His recommendation: the Top Forks Hut in Mt. Aspiring National Park. “Hardly anybody goes there,” he said, “the scenery is incredible, and the best part is you can helicopter in and take a jet boat out.” Now that sounded like a hiking adventure worth experiencing but I was at the end of my time in New Zealand on that trip so I put the idea on hold. Until 2018 when I returned to the country for 8 weeks of travel and leading photo tours. Hitting up Top Forks was the #1 thing on my priority list so when the weather forecast showed a stretch of acceptable weather (read: anything less than solid rain) I contacted the folks at Wilkin River Jets to ferry me into the backcountry for what was to be five days of exploration, hiking, and photography.
I had originally planned to fly into a place called the Siberia Valley and then hike up to Top Forks but after some boots-on-the-ground wisdom from the local Department of Conservation staff (“you’ll have to cross the Wilkin River if you do that and it’ll be in flood. Be prepared to swim.”) I opted for a lift directly into Top Forks itself. Rain pelted the chopper as we flew up the glacially-carved valleys of the national park but the flight afforded a few foreshadowing views of the scenery.
The pilot dropped me about 10 minutes’ walk from the hut then took off in a blast of spray. I skipped up the rough track to Top Forks in the rain, getting soaked from the knees down from the wet grass, all while the rotor beats of the chopper receded behind me.
Reaching the hut I stepped inside, dropped my pack (easiest 16 miles I ever hiked), and took stock of the situation. There wasn’t a single other soul in the hut and a quick peek at the hut log showed only 9 visits in the previous 12 days, usually by small parties of 1s and 2s. Considering the weather and low visitation numbers I figured I had a fair to middlin’ chance of being the only person to arrive at the hut that day and took the liberty of exploding the contents of my pack all over the interior of the 10-bunk shelter. Rain gear went on one bunk, sleeping bag on another. Spare clothing on a third. No, wait, I actually didn’t have any spare clothing. I had packed somewhat frantically that morning and neglected to bring any base layers. It didn’t seem an issue as I stuffed gear into my pack a few hours earlier but with the driving rain outside and the temperature inside the hut hovering around 40 degrees I was beginning to regret that oversight. Ah well, what I had brought in excess was chocolate and banana chips and intended to make up for my lack of warm clothing by eating snacks.
But first I intended to get a fire going. Top Forks is a serviced hut, which in DOC parlance means there is a fireplace inside. Unfortunately for me all the firewood was outside in the rain. There was a wood shed but upon raiding it it became immediately clear that previous hut dwellers had used whatever dry wood there was and replaced it with sticks and logs from the forest. Which is exactly what you are supposed to do, but it still doesn’t help me when all those logs are drenched from the previous week of rain. Eventually I found a little dry brush at the bottom of the shed (stumbling along a creepy dessicated possum carcass in the process), broke it into small bits, and stuffed it into the stove. Then using my cookstove as a blowtorch I sent the tinder up in a flurry of ash and sparks.
Over the next 90 minutes I wooed that fire like it was the prom queen, and eventually got it going steady. I spent the rest of the afternoon caressing and loving it, feeding it the driest wood I could find, and using it to burn the chill out of the hut. I also enjoyed a few lovely hours nibbling my aforementioned snacks and reading Antics, a compendium of some of the best stories of the Otago University Tramping Club, where it seems misadventure is celebrated just as much as adventure.
Around 5 pm the rain relented and I went for a foray through the neighborhood, so to speak. As the clouds lifted I descended into idiotic euphoria and began singing “Something’s Coming” from West Side Story at the top of my lungs. I could see bare hints of the snow-dusted tops of the mountains, and the Wilkin River running by the hut was the color of turbulent seawater. Soon rain began to fall again in earnest and I retreated to the comfort of the hut.
Looking hard at my meager collection of semi-dry wood inside I realized I wouldn’t have enough to keep the fire going for the night. I went back to the woodshed for a desperate scrounge of anything burnable and discovered with a bit of a jolt that the shed had another compartment around back. I was hoping to find stacks upon stacks of cordwood but instead discovered sacks upon sacks of coal. Honest to goodness coal. The trampers at Top Forks Hut must have been very naughty to receive the hundreds of kilos of coal lying there.
In theory I knew that coal burned but I’d never personally lit a coal fire and didn’t know how to do it. “How hard could it be?” I wondered and tossed a couple of lumps in on top of my smouldering kindling. Unsurprisingly it didn’t instantly burst into flame. I figured I needed to get the fire to a certain critical temperature and add a certain critical mass of coal before it would really crank. Unfortunately it didn’t seem possible given the current wettish state of all my wood. However, that didn’t stop me from trying to seduce some heat from the coal by blowing relentlessly on it, which I’m sure took about a 5-year toll on my life span as I breathed in the foul-smelling and greasy smoke. Rather than calling it a failure I chose to think of it as a delayed success and left the fire to its own devices, hoping the wood I brought inside would dry out overnight. Meanwhile I contented myself with being warm from the inside out, serving up a dinner of rehydrated chicken and potatoes, followed by cups of hot tea.
After a somewhat chilly first night in the hut I awoke at first light, keen to shoot the sunrise. I peeked outside to find the sky completely clear and frost covering everything in sight. If I had to guess I’d wager the outside temperature was somewhere around 28°F. And though I had forgotten my baselayers I found my rain clothes and balaclava to make a nice outer layer to protect against the morning chill. As I suited up clouds started popping into the sky like fluffy polka dots and mist from the previous day’s rain steamed out of the forest. Sunlight lit up the landscape in bright punctuation marks and that along with the precisely zero sandflies buzzing about (too cold?) meant I enjoyed two hours of fine shooting in the area around the hut.
Returning to the hut for a breakfast of what was supposed to be “Triple Berry” oats but what could have been more credibly called “Cardboard Berry” oats I enjoyed a slow-as-molasses pack up before starting out on a day trip at the obscenely leisurely hour of 11:45 am. By this point the sky had become completely overcast, a state of weather which would end up lasting all day.
Two minutes from the hut was the first of 10 river crossings for the day and in a valiant but ultimately futile attempt to keep my shoes dry I popped my feet into a pair of crocs and waded across the chilly water. From there a quick 15-minute hop, skip, and jump along the river’s edge brought me to another crossing and another croc-for-shoe swap. At this point the trail entered the beech forest and climbed steeply up a ridge to emerge at Lake Diana, my first destination for the day. Along this segment of the journey I enjoyed every possible shade of green in the forest, with mosses and leaves mingling in an abundant display of vegetative richness.
Lake Diana seemed to be more of a pond to my eyes and I was eager to see the more dramatic lakes of Lucidus and Castalia further up the trail so I put one foot in front of the other and pounded off down the track. I soon emerged from the forest and onto a boggy tussock landscape, which the DOC had thankfully bridged with a wooden boardwalk. With easy walking and good tunes playing on my iPod (this time it was a blast from my college past, an energetic ska band called Rx Bandits) I once again descended into that idiotic euphoria and went sprinting down the wooden slats of the boardwalk.
From there it was a quick ramble up through dry grasslands to Lucidus Lake, a glacial body of water fenced in by the moraine of the historically much larger Lucidus Glacier. By this point the clouds had thickened considerably and the iridescent hue of the water had been damped down to something more like a wet sponge. I had brought my underwater housing to photograph rocks in the lake but without the sparkle of the water I wasn’t excited about the potential and didn’t shoot. I did however take the opportunity to grab a snack (a bumber, builder, buster, banker bar?? Can’t remember but it was tasty!) and kill a sandfly or two just for fun.
At this point I was feeling great and nowhere near ready to turn around for the day so I set off for Lake Castalia, a further two hours up the trail. “Two hours???” I thought, “how could it possibly be two hours?? It’s only a couple of miles away…” Well, when tramping in NZ you quickly learn that distance is not a good proxy for time.
Almost immediately there was another river crossing, and still striving for dry shoes I once again slipped into crocs to cross the river, changing back into my hikers on the other side. Failing to check the map at this point I didn’t realize there was another crossing two minutes later. Once again, a footwear switcheroo. At this point the trail conditions devolved from a track to something more like a goat trail cut into the side of the hill. 40 minutes of bibs and bobs, ups and downs, wiggles and waggles brought me to my fifth river crossing of the uphill journey. I paused for a quick lunch before dashing across the river and up into alpine shrub vegetation.
At this point I happened upon one of the most interesting kinds of trail I’ve ever followed: thick bunches of tussock grass grew together in a seemingly unbroken field. Yet the trail itself did wind around the bases of the plants. It was fascinating but meant that visibility of the trail was nil and every step had to be placed with care. That didn’t stop me from falling in a hole here and there though.
Coming out of this “tussock tunnel” I gained a boulder field and it was a fun 20 minutes scramble to Castalia. The gloomy weather had gotten gloomier and other than a quick documentation snap I didn’t do any photography.
Soon after it started sprinkling so I skipped a few rocks across the smooth surface of the lake and began the trek back. All was going well until I reached the tussock tunnel again. The grasses were now damp from the rain and the sting of endless fronds of grass slapping my legs with their needly wetness sent me into a torrent of cursing and shouting. I think I can understand Chinese water torture a bit better now as those thousands of minute injuries set me on edge, pushing me closer to actual anger and frustration than almost any other hiking experience ever has.
So it was with obvious relief that I popped out of the grasses again and onto the more tedious (but less annoying) goat trail down along the river. At this point I was getting a bit sleepy and my footsteps were getting clumsy and I took a slip or two over the next hour of hiking. Soon after crossing back over the river for the 8th time that day I lay down to take a brief nap but was prevented from sleeping by sandflies buzzing about my closed eyelids.
Still, even a few minutes of rest felt heavenly. That, with the fact that I was now back on a better trail, rejuvenated my spirits and I bombed down the rest of the trail to the hut (still diligently changing my shoes at every crossing), arriving around 7 pm under genuine rain. I changed into dry clothes, whipped up some hot food and settled in for another night alone in the hut.
Days 3 – 5
To read about the second half of the trip, check out part 2 of this trip report.