SENT TO SIBERIA

Colin Moore goes for the easy wilder­ness op­tion on a clas­sic trek in New Zealand’s South Is­land

The Weekend Australian - Travel - - Travel -

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.

Check­list

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.

Pic­tures: Gil­bert van Ree­nen, Colin Moore, Rob Suisted

Peak to peek: A glimpse of Mid­dle-earth in Mt As­pir­ing Na­tional Park, left; hik­ing through Siberia Val­ley, cen­tre and top; Lake Wanaka, right

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