Three days, a decent weather window, and a desire to hike. That’s what drove me to pack up my backpack once again and mosey off down the trail into Mt. Aspiring National Park. After weighing a number of options and getting some local advice, I decided to hit up the West Branch of the Matukituki River to check both the Liverpool and French Ridge Huts off my New Zealand ticklist. I’d heard the scenery from both was spectacular, but that the climbs to each hut were leg- and lung-busters. I wanted to find out for myself if the hype was true.
The trail up the west branch of the Matukituki starts at the well-known Raspberry Creek carpark, about an hour’s drive NW of Wanaka. As I drove up the road in my trusty rental car I picked up two hitchhikers and we chatted amiably while burning down the miles to the road end. Recent rains had swelled many of the creeks that cross the road and dozens of travelers had decided it was safer to park their cars before the first ford and walk the extra 3 km to the trailhead. Imagine their looks of surprise when I and my hitchhikers went blazing past them in our Toyota Yaris, sending gargantuan rooster tails spraying out from the tires at every creek crossing. Remember kids, every car is a 4×4 if you drive fast enough.
At the carpark I made a final bag check then proceeded to sculpt an air of disarray in the car, covering up all my extra camera equipment, laptop, and valuables with a precise arrangement of dirty socks. No thief would ever expect that a pile of stinky laundry was actually covering up a few thousand dollars in gear, right? At least that’s what I hoped as I shouldered my bag and traipsed off down the trail.
The West Matukituki Track (hereafter abbreviated as WMT) follows the enormously popular Rob Roy Glacier trail for about 20 minutes before it splits off to follow a rough 4×4 road miles up the glacial valley. And if you haven’t done your research this is also the point where you realize you’ve got some distance to cover. I got a late start on the track, around 2:30 in the afternoon. With just over 5 hours till sunset could I make it all the way to Liverpool Hut before dark? I was about to find out.
The WMT is a strange trail in that it is divided very cleanly into two distinct parts: the first part is flat and long, with virtually no elevation change over its roughly 9-mile length. The second part is, well, I’ll get to that after describing the first part in more detail. Because it’s worth noting that this section of the track hardly feels like a trail at all. Like I mentioned earlier this bit follows a 4×4 trail, meandering through cattle-grazed farmland and dipping through the occasional creek.
The scenery is nevertheless spectacular, as I was surrounded on all sides by jagged peaks. The cobalt-blue Matukituki River flowed right by my side. And I spied icy glaciers (as opposed to those non-icy glaciers) in the distance. Still, as I walked along the road, dodging cow-pies, and baaaaa-ing at sheep, I couldn’t help but feel that this was all a little too pastoral to be a proper tramping track.
Still, the flatness of the glacially-carved valley made the walking mindlessly easy and fast, and in what seemed like no time at all I’d covered the 9 km to the Aspiring Hut (leaving the farmland and crossing into the actual National Park 20 minutes prior). Aspiring Hut is a jump-off point for trampers going up over the Cascade Saddle and down into Glenorchy, and is quite honestly the nicest hut I’ve ever seen in New Zealand. It’s big, it has flush toilets, it’s got heating and gas cookers. This thing is luxurious. But for me it was only a pit stop to see the hut warden and inform him of my plans.
The warden was a guy named Stu. A tried and true good Kiwi bloke with a particular affinity for the word “yeh.” As in “you want to go to Liverpool and French Ridge, yeh? Yeh, that’s fine, yeh. Just yeh, tell me where you went, yeh, on your way back out, yeh, and we can settle up your bill for the huts. Yeh? Yeh.” With that arrangement agreeably sorted I hefted my pack and set off on the next leg of the trip.
From Aspiring Hut the track wandered in and out of beech forest, over a couple of swing bridges, down past waterfalls, and along the Matukituki.
And after an hour of fairly fun and fast hiking I found myself at Pearl Flat, where the trail splits in three directions. To the right was the track to French Ridge. Straight ahead was the trail to the head of the valley. And left, left was calling my name: the track to Liverpool Hut. Here is where the mystery of the track, the second part in that clear divide I mentioned earlier, began. You see, it took three hours to hike that first 14 or 14.5 km. Now there was only a kilometer or two remaining till the hut, and yet the sign told me to allow another two hours. How could it possibly take two hours to cover 1.5 k’s?
The answer of course is quite simple: the first three hours of trail were flat as could be. This final section went straight up. And I, having left my anti-grav boots at home, had to do all the climbing the old fashioned way, with two legs, two lungs, a grunt, and a curse. 700 meters of ascent in 1.5-ish kms. For those who speak more comfortably in imperial units, that’s 2300 feet of gain in one mile. And for those who speak more comfortably in colloquialisms, that is steeper than old Abe Lincoln’s top hat.
But there was nothing for it except to go up, so up I go’ed. Thankfully over the years I’ve developed a surefire approach to climbing hills that gets me to the top quicker than you can explain to a child why the sky is blue. It’s a simple system, one that relies less on pure fitness and power than you might think, and I’m gonna share it with you now:
- First, take tiny steps. The smaller the better. Think about lifting weights in the gym. How many reps can you do lifting a weight of 100 lbs vs lifting 1 lb? Same idea here. It’s infinitely easier to lift yourself over one thousand tiny steps than it is to do one hundred full-depth single-leg squat thrusts.
- Two, go SLOWLY and keep moving. Find a pace that you can sustain without stopping and stick to it. If you find your legs or lungs reaching fatigue then you are going too fast. Tortoise and the hare here, folks. You make much better time moving slowly and consistently than you do by rocketing up till your lungs are screaming and then being forced to take a 10 minute break.
- Three, get yourself a pair of trekking poles. The poles allow you to pull hard with your arms as you push with your legs. If you are using them correctly a pair of poles will offload your legs by around 30%, meaning your 30 lb pack now feels like a 21 lb pack, a difference your quads will thank you for with every step.
- Music and podcasts and good conversations with hiking companions are your friends!
- In the off season, run up and down Everest a few times. When you can do this without breaking a sweat then any climb will be easy for you.
With my head down, my legs churning, and good tunes popping in my ear buds I found myself above the bushline in about 45 minutes. Shortly thereafter I glimpsed the bright red toilet of the hut not far in the distance. Of course in the world of Kiwi trekking the fact that you can see the hut means precisely dick. Sometimes you might be two minutes away, sometimes you might be 20. Or even two hours.
And in classic Kiwi fashion this first glimpse of the hut was a tease. Arrival at the hut was dangled out there in front of me like a delicious carrot (mmmmm boy, carrots!), then the trail gave me the stick by arcing up and away another 25 minutes over a prominent hump. Thankfully the views were splendid and when the hut finally did appear just a wee ways down the trail I was in a good mood, having not minded the detour at all.
At this point I flashed back to something Stu had told me a couple of hours earlier: “Liverpool Hut, yeh? It’s a 10-bunk hut, yeh, and there are already 15 people on their way up there. Yeh, you can still go, but it’s going to be floor space only, yeh.” And sure enough, when I rocked up to the hut, dropped my bag, and stepped inside I was greeted with a raucous chorus of hellos and laughter. At least a dozen people were crammed around a table made for 8 or 10, and wet clothing, camera equipment, and sleeping bags covered every conceivable flat surface. Luckily the crew was in a joyful mood and laughter rolled out of them as they squeezed tighter and tighter around the table.
And astonishingly, as I stepped up to the table, someone greeted me by name. Two photographers and travelers, Jack and Marta, whom I had met three years prior while shooting around the Wanaka Willow, were sitting right there at the table. What a fun, crazy coincidence. (Side note: Marta and Jack run In a Faraway Land, a wonderful travel blog with heaps of great tips for Canada and New Zealand).
The mood was convivial, everyone was in high spirits, and as the sun went down nearly the entire hut crew spilled outside to watch the last light of day in Mt Aspiring National Park.
Once darkness fell our primal rhythms kicked in and inside the hut a brief flurry of teeth brushing, sleeping bag unfurling, and floor space clearing ensued before we all dropped to sleep.
The next day began with a burst of light and a burst of life as everyone in the hut scrambled out of their bunks (or off the floor in my case) to watch the sunrise. Exclamations of color bounced up and down the valley, bathing the clouds and mountains in pinks and oranges.
As the color faded from the sky a mad scramble began in the hut as 16 people attempted to cook breakfast in a kitchen designed for four. Lighters, gas canisters, and banana chips were shared freely as the scents of oatmeal, isobutane, and noodles filled the air. The scramble continued as most of the hut dwellers stuffed sleeping bags and wet socks back inside their backpacks then set off down the trail. The few of us that remained took a more leisurely approach to packing, enjoying the extra elbow room as the hut emptied out.
Being the last few people in the hut also meant we did all of the final cleanup, and after the sweeping and scrubbing was done we were left with a forgotten pair of dirty undies, three or four unmatched socks, a spare gas canister or two, a half-empty jar of alfredo sauce, and other odds and ends. Some irresponsible party in days past had also left a bucket of watery food leftovers under the sink and as we cleaned we discovered that disgusting disaster, now cloaked in a thick blanket of mold. Way to go, people!
After the cleanup was done and the bags packed I wandered around the tussock grass outside the hut looking for a glove I had lost the night before. I figured it was long gone, plucked away by gusty winds or a curious kea. But to my amazement I found it easily, sitting peacefully in a clearing in between the bushes. Score one for the Crippster.
After the chill of the morning day was quickly turning bright and warm and though the warm sun was caressing my face in a most wonderful way the temps were also bringing out the sandflies. Their biting meant it was time to stop lounging and make a move. Originally I had considered spending two nights at Liverpool Hut and scrambling around the area during the day. But I’d spent much of the morning staring up at the French Ridge Hut (a tiny red blip on the opposite side of the valley) and decided I needed to satisfy my curiosity about what it was like.
That meant the plan for the day was to bomb back down the 2300 feet to the valley floor, cross the river, then climb back up the other side. This time a full 1000 m (3300 feet) to French Ridge Hut. Thankfully my quads were feeling good, I was in high spirits, and I had Jack and Marta to chat with on the way down. Moving down a steep trail is certainly more precarious than moving up and I neglected to take any photos of the descent, preferring instead to use my hands to grab roots and rocks.
In no time at all (well, really more like 90 minutes) we were back on the flats, enjoying the sunshine, grabbing a snack, and crushing the hovering sandflies into a slimy pulp. Jack and Marta had other plans for the rest of the day so they set off back down the valley, leaving me to swap my shoes for crocs to cross the Matukituki river.
Cold, but neither deep nor fast flowing at this point, the Matukes was an easy crossing and I chucked back on my hikers to began the long climb up French Ridge. Much like the Liverpool track, this trail climbed up through the beech forest, though it wasn’t quite as steep or as wet, and I enjoyed the ascent immensely.
Above the bushline however the track did take on a different character, unfolding with bomber, up-close views of glaciers and peaks. Puffy cumulus clouds intermittently screened the sun and made a patchwork of light on the landscape below. As I climbed the drool was running out of both sides of my mouth as I gazed at the thousand-meter cliffs, tussock-blanketed hillsides, and cascading waterfalls surrounding me.
Nevertheless, the climb was fairly stout (ascending roughly 1000m / 3300 feet in about 2.5 km / 1.5 miles) and after two hours of tramping I was happy to see the bright red hut toilet (why is that always the first thing you see?) pop into view on the ridge just above me.
I gained the hut itself and happily shucked off my backpack, shoes, and socks. I intended to rest for a little while and go out to explore the area more later. But as I luxuriated inside the hut (with no one else around) drinking the beer I lugged up for just that occasion, clouds began to thicken, all but blocking out the view of the mountains above the hut.
Without the views of the peaks nearby my plans of exploration lost their lustre and instead I chose to have a quick and chilly sponge bath outside. Of course the exact moment of my peak undressedness was the exact moment that two other trampers decided to show up at the hut. Hello and how do you do? But modesty has little place in the mountains and no one’s sensibilities were offended. We spent the afternoon swapping stories and trail recommendations with each other, drinking tea, and eating chocolate.
Around sunset the clouds across the valley began a beautiful dance with the mountains, and as waves of cloud were lit up in fantastic patterns by the low-angle light I enjoyed an invigorating hour photographing the ever-changing conditions.
Darkness fell and the three of us cooked and ate dinner. Much to our surprise two additional trampers showed up, but hardly speaking a word of English they kept mostly to themselves. Thus the five of us had a peaceful night in the hut, with plenty of bunk space for everyone, and no one on the floor.
After a great night’s sleep with only two mid-night trips outside to pee (because I swear my body osmoses water out of the friggin’ air) I woke up to my alarm bleeping at me about 45 minutes before sunrise. I had a quick look outside, saw nothing but thick cloud and drizzle, and promptly went back to sleep. And since turning off your alarm and going back to sleep is one of the greatest feelings in the world I was pretty happy to start my day that way.
But eventually I did wake up on my own and though lounging in the hut in the rain felt awfully relaxing I couldn’t ignore the fact that I had about six hours of walking ahead of me. With the forecast looking showery and turning to rain in the afternoon I wanted to get back to the car and over the creek crossings before they swelled too much and trapped me.
I ate a quick breakfast of oatmeal and tea, packed up my bag, and headed off to the toilet for my morning ritual. And to my pleasant surprise I was greeted by two squawky keas hopping around on the roof of the long drop and generally making a ruckus.
After I finished my duty and fed the keas the rest of my leftover food (just kidding!) I shouldered my bag and started down the trail. Thankfully the clouds had lifted a bit and light was breaking through, dotting the landscape with bursts of brightness.
The temperature was chilly, the winds were brisk, and my nose was dripping like a faucet as I picked my way down the trail. However, my body has an internal heater that activates after precisely 15 minutes of movement and soon I had warmed up to a comfortable degree.
Soon afterwards I entered the forest and began to sweat in earnest as the trees blocked the wind and the temperature rose. The rest of descent was fairly mundane: carefully placing footfalls on roots and stones until I reached the valley floor. I did my footwear swap one last time to cross the Matukituki and started down the track.
Although clouds filled the sky I didn’t see much rain on the way just yet so I took a more leisurely pace back to Aspiring Hut, accompanied by the two trampers from French Ridge Hut I had been chatting to at dinner. When we reached Aspiring Hut they went on ahead while I stopped to eat lunch (Hawaiian pull-apart bread, salami, banana chips, pretzel sticks, and chocolate for dessert. Gotta love short trips and bringing a ton of food!).
I paid Stu my hut fees for the previous two nights (yeh, yeh) then grabbed my pack and started out for the final two hours back to the car. The walking was easy and pleasant, and the cloud cover made for gorgeous dappled light. I walked most of the way in silence, quietly contemplating and enjoying the serene nature of the area.
Only when the track merged back with the Rob Roy Glacier trail did I pop out of my reverie, as I passed dozens of other people, their general hubbub changing the feel of the moment.
Soon after I was back at the car, loading up, and sluicing through the creek crossings back to Wanaka. The rain had held off and it was easy travel back to town.
Thus, my curiosity about these two famous huts satisfied, I wrapped up another great trip. And now, knowing the place a bit better, on my future trips I’ll plan to spend more time at French Ridge (with some mountaineering equipment in tow) to explore the more spectacular terrain there. Thanks for reading!