SENT TO SIBERIA
Colin Moore goes for the easy wilderness option on a classic trek in New Zealand’s South Island
DOWNHILL is a relative concept. As the grand old duke of York’s men discovered, there tends to be a catch to it. Ask my wife. I once persuaded her to join me on a bush walk from Cascade Kauri, in Auckland’s Waitakere Ranges, to Bethells Beach with the promise it was downhill all the way.
Motorists who drive from the top of the range down Bethells Road to the coast will surely agree with my assertion. Trampers know better. There is never a down without some up.
Worse still, we had to negotiate a stream that developed into a deep pool in a narrow rocky canyon. The choices were to attempt to climb around the precipitous rock walls or get wet. My wife chose to get wet and was far from amused. Nor has she forgotten.
So there is an understandable degree of scepticism when I suggest the Siberia Experience in Mt Aspiring National Park is downhill all the way. Well, that is what the brochure indicates. Fly from Makarora in a small aircraft into the remote Siberia Valley, stroll through untouched native forest along the Siberia River for about three hours, then take a 30-minute jet boat ride down the Wilkin River back to Makarora. Sounds like a breeze. It’s also a great part of the New Zealand outdoors, a microcosm of the South Island wilderness at its best.
The mountains are high, the tops snowclad. The rivers run clean and fast over boulders and shingle flats, sometimes braided, sometimes confined to narrow, rapids-filled channels. The bush, mainly beech, is tall and untouched.
From Makarora, a settlement on State Highway 6 between Fox Glacier and Lake Wanaka that comfortably survives on tourism, there are several popular two to fourday trips in the hills using the huts of Mt Aspiring National Park or, in summer, delightful riverside camping spots.
A classic tramp starting at Makarora is to walk up the Young River to Young Hut, cross Gillespie Pass at 1520m into the Siberia Valley, then walk down to Kerin Forks to catch the Wilkin River jet boat back to Makarora or simply keep walking. Or there is the easy option. ‘‘ My husband claims it’s downhill all the way,’’ says my wife, seeking reassurance as she fills in the passenger details form for the flight into Siberia Valley.
‘‘ Ah, um,’’ the pilot says. ‘‘ It’s mostly downhill, there’s just a little bit of up.’’ ‘‘ Well, I had better not get wet.’’ The pilot hesitates. ‘‘ The river was waisthigh yesterday but it should have dropped a bit by now.’’
By this stage I am hiding behind a display of souvenirs, thankful the pilot is what older women may call cute and that we are with two friends with boundless enthusiasm.
The bright yellow Cessna is tiny and I make sure my wife sits next to the pilot while the rest of us, including a sour-faced woman with a European accent, squeeze in behind.
Before the motor even coughs into life the visitor from Europe announces that she will be sick, as matter of factly as if she is giving an order. When I suggest perhaps she is talking herself into being ill, I am told I don’t know what I am talking about.
And she’s right. The plane is barely airborne before she is retching on cue. But the scenery is spectacular as we fly up the Wilkin Valley, detouring up several hanging valleys that drain into the Wilkin. The pilot points out various landmarks as we go.
We circle around the snowy tops of Mt Kuri and make a tight turn over an icefilled Lake Crucible. It is about then that the effects of the huge up and down-draughts of mountain flying prove too much for my wife’s stomach. This time, there’s no rack of souvenirs to hide behind.
When the pilot points out the large spur that the track out of Siberia Valley climbs over and the Siberia River we will have to cross to reach the track, my wife drops the sick bag in her lap.
So as soon as we land on an old deer recovery air strip in the middle of the valley, I take the coward’s way out and suggest that I check the river depth and leave my enthusiastic friends to shepherd my wife across the water. She’s caught between a rock and a hard place, or make that a small plane and a river.
Our European visitor has two walking poles but declines my request that she might possibly lend one to my wife for the river crossing. The water is just above knee-height and freezing with snow melt. But the sun is shining and the surroundings are so magical that even my better half is having difficulty being cross as she sips hot coffee while I scurry off to clean up her clothes and unpack some dry socks.
The track out of the valley is broad and recently re-metalled with quartz chips that sparkle in the sun like mother lodes of silver and gold. The beech trees and the soft carpet of leaves beneath are treasures, too. Between the boughs are views of the rushing river below and mountains with an icing of glistening snow above.
And, yes, the track does involve a considerable climb over a spur, but there is no choice. Way below us, the Siberia River is pounding through a narrow, steep-sided rocky canyon. We lunch at what seems the breast of the climb and it is testament to the ease of the trail, the magnificence of the surroundings and the soothing solitude that the talk gets around to the possibility of doing some guided tramps in the future. The prospect prompts no murmurs of disapproval or incredulity.
The descent to Kerin Flats on the Wilkin is easy going and we arrive on time for the jet boat pick-up. Our overseas visitor and the rest of her party, who have arrived on another flight, are close behind.
‘‘ I will be sick,’’ she tells the boat driver as he organises the seating arrangements. ‘‘ I’ve been doing this for years and I have never had a sick passenger yet,’’ he replies. ‘‘ I will be sick,’’ she insists. ‘‘ If you are, the coffee is on me, but if not you owe me a coffee,’’ he laughs.
We get the standard jet boat briefing. This is more of a scenic trip than a thrills and spills ride, but we can do some spins, the driver tells us. ‘‘ No, I will be sick,’’ says our visitor. And so we jet down the Wilkin, a ride that is indeed scenic and a lot quicker than walking. Our visitor isn’t sick but insists on being put ashore before the rest of the paying customers get the chance to feel a jet boat being put through its spinning paces.
My wife concludes it has been a great day even if it hasn’t been downhill all the way and she has got wet. And we are still talking about a guided walk somewhere. Colin Moore is the travel editor of Wilderness, NZ’s monthly outdoor recreation magazine.
Siberia Valley is in Mt Aspiring National Park. Allow a half day: 25-minute scenic flight, three to four-hour walk, 30-minute jet boat ride. The grade is easy to medium; suitable for all ages and average fitness. More: www.siberiaexperience.co.nz.
Peak to peek: A glimpse of Middle-earth in Mt Aspiring National Park, left; hiking through Siberia Valley, centre and top; Lake Wanaka, right