TREKKING WITH LLA­MAS

If I had a list of emails I never ex­pected to get, this would be up there. “I have a mis­sion for you. Walk­ing over the South­ern Alps of New Zealand from Han­mer to West­port… with lla­mas”.

Say Yes To Adventure - - Features - WORDS AND IMAGES: Thomas Parker LO­CA­TION: New Zealand

Thomas Parker

AT THIS POINT I should prob­a­bly add a lit­tle con­text to this story. I was liv­ing in Wanaka at the time and work­ing as a bar­tender and pho­tog­ra­pher. This par­tic­u­lar morn­ing, I was sit­ting on my porch and en­joy­ing a cup of cof­fee when my phone chimed up from in­side the kitchen with a sim­ple and tothe-point email. It was all I needed. Af­ter read­ing it sev­eral times to make sure I grasped what I was be­ing asked to do – ac­com­pany and doc­u­ment a llama trekking out­fit on an eight-day pi­lot trip over the Hope Sad­dle – I did what any sel­f­re­spect­ing ad­ven­turer would do. I walked straight to work and told my boss I needed two weeks off to go llama trekking. He un­der­stood. I ar­rived in Han­mer Springs just af­ter dark the night be­fore our trek was set to be­gin. As I pulled into the drive­way of the home ad­dress I was given, an older man in shorts and a polo shirt met me, wear­ing a smile that looked as if it could split a stump. He in­tro­duced him­self as Tony Pearce, the owner of Han­mer Lla­mas. Af­ter pack­ing the llama bags, Tony and I had tea, re­viewed maps of the trip, and went to bed early, know­ing we had to rise at 5am to start the jour­ney. I would learn over the next ten days that Tony Pearce was much more than the owner of a small llama trekking com­pany; he was also one of those few peo­ple you meet who smile and laugh as eas­ily as they breathe, and one who ap­proaches ev­ery new chal­lenge with a con­ta­gious air of ex­cite­ment and cu­rios­ity that a 10-year-old in a candy shop would have a tough time match­ing. All in all, he was a man worth fol­low­ing. It seemed like I'd only been asleep for min­utes when a crisp knock on the door brought me to alert­ness im­me­di­ately. “Time to get up, po­lice are here to evac­u­ate us be­cause of a for­est fire the next ridge over,” said Tony's calm voice out­side my room. You would have thought he was dis­cussing our choice of break­fast. All five of us were up and out the door in min­utes, quickly driv­ing down the long farm road to the safety of the main road be­low. That's when I found out Tony had

a plan. He turned to his friend Stu­art and me, “Al­right guys, we've got to go back and get the lla­mas.” Seemed sim­ple enough un­til we dis­cov­ered that get­ting the lla­mas also en­tailed cor­ralling them, leash­ing them, mak­ing tea, and sleep­ing in a cow pas­ture by the river with our new friends while the rest of the road's res­i­dents were evac­u­ated seven kilo­me­tres away to the town cen­tre. I won't tell you ex­actly when we went back to the house the next morn­ing, but it's safe to say it was be­fore ev­ery­one else was al­lowed to. That served as my in­tro­duc­tion to both my fear­less leader Tony and my stoic trekking mates, the lla­mas, who were com­pletely un­fazed by the whole fi­asco. With an ad­ven­ture al­ready un­der our belts, we set out on our real trip early the next morn­ing.

There were six of us, each one of us as dif­fer­ent as the many ter­rains we were about to nav­i­gate. Our team in­cluded Myles, a 35-year-old hunter and friend of Tony's; Bregje, a Dutch ex-pat and a vet­eran of Tony's shorter llama treks; 14-year-old Amber and her grand­fa­ther Stu­art, whom we af­fec­tion­ately nick­named “Pos­sum and Badger”, me, and Tony, a man who's hunted and fished al­most any­thing you can imag­ine and has prob­a­bly spent more time in the bush then I've spent alive.

It wasn't un­til we had un­loaded all the lla­mas, sad­dles, and packs that we found out which llama we'd each be spend­ing so much time with over the next eight days. I'll ad­mit that I laughed when Tony ex­plained that part­ner­ing each of us with our llama was a se­ri­ous process that in­volved match­ing the lla­mas' per­son­al­i­ties with our own. It didn't take long for me to re­alise how right he was. My llama was named Joey, and he was a worker. While other lla­mas may have wanted a cud­dle now and then, or needed a bit of guid­ing down rougher sec­tions, Joey just did his job. When he had his har­ness off, he was in llama land and wanted noth­ing to do with me. When he was sad­dled and packed up, though, he was the best. Over the next three days, we were sur­rounded by the sounds of bab­bling brooks, chirp­ing birds, and cluck­ing lla­mas as we hiked over gor­geous mead­ows, along beau­ti­ful riverbeds, and through en­chant­ing beech for­est and our own misted val­ley. We spent our first night camped in a field un­der the stars with the val­ley form­ing up around us on both sides. It was a clear night and we sat around in the grass, eat­ing and drink­ing the cake and wine that our lla­mas had packed in for us while we gazed up at the Milky Way and the many dif­fer­ent con­stel­la­tions, plan­ets, and satel­lites we could see from our lit­tle camp.

The sec­ond night we slept in one of New Zealand's tiny and won­der­ful back­coun­try huts, Top Hope Hut. The mur­mur of rain­drops on the tin roof ser­e­naded us through the evening as we in­dulged in a nice glass of scotch and some spicy salami. These first three days felt like a dream, walk­ing in the sun­shine with the lla­mas car­ry­ing all our things. The hik­ing was easy, the scenery was stun­ning, and the weather

was at least man­age­able, if not per­fect ev­ery day. Then the real fun be­gan.

The third night was cold; two pairs of wools socks in a 0 °C down bag with no feel­ing in your toes cold. When I broke the ice off my tent zip­per in the morn­ing and crawled out onto the frozen grass, shim­mer­ing frost sur­rounded me on all sides. The early morn­ing light shone through the val­ley, high­light­ing the layer of frozen crys­tals cov­er­ing the grass, ferns, tents, and lla­mas. Sit­ting in the mid­dle of this frozen sanc­tu­ary, lean­ing against a mossy rock was Tony, wear­ing only his cus­tom­ary smile, a pair of shorts, and a plaid ‘woolly'. Many peo­ple, like me be­fore, have prob­a­bly never heard of a woolly. It is a long, thick, itchy, and sim­ple wool shirt with a hood and leather ties around the neck. It is also the warm­est piece of cloth­ing I've ever worn and a Kiwi bush­man like Tony only needed this as pro­tec­tion from the cold, rain, wind, or snow. It was a les­son I won't for­get any­time soon. This was a rest day for the lla­mas so Myles and I de­cided to climb up an ad­ja­cent val­ley to do some hunt­ing. We hacked through thick bush and crawled on all fours to reach the spot Tony had pointed out to us from the val­ley far be­low. I'd never hunted be­fore and I've since been told that this was an un­usu­ally bru­tal in­tro­duc­tion. With our lla­mas wait­ing be­low and our ri­fles in hand, I felt more like a Bo­li­vian Guerilla hack­ing through the bush of South Amer­ica than an Amer­i­can tourist writ­ing a story in New Zealand. Af­ter sev­eral hours of scrapes, bruises, and more than one curse from both of us, we reached the top of our lit­tle hill and Myles sig­nalled me to get down and crawl to the peak. Low and be­hold, there the deer were, graz­ing across the val­ley. I'll skip the de­tails of the en­su­ing kill and col­lec­tion; the whole thing felt sa­cred to me, shrouded in the mist that blan­keted the peaks where we packed up the meat we would carry down and share with our small party. The hike down was cer­tainly not any eas­ier than the slog up, but we had suc­ceeded in find­ing food and the thought of the com­ing feast made it al­most a cathar­tic ex­pe­ri­ence. That night a warm camp­fire and some of Tony's best sto­ries about his brother and their hi­lar­i­ous ad­ven­tures ac­com­pa­nied our veni­son stew. It was a night to re­mem­ber.

The next sev­eral days were tough. We reached the Hope Sad­dle mid-morn­ing the next day and crossed into the rugged West Coast. The heavy rain, steep hills, and un­main­tained trails slowed our progress through thick bush and the rocky gorge through which we hiked. If it was hard for us, it was twice as dif­fi­cult for the lla­mas car­ry­ing our things. The rocks were bru­tal on the pads of their feet and the steep muddy ter­rain through the bush made ev­ery step treach­er­ous. At one point we briefly lost two lla­mas down a mud­slide, one of which was pinned up­side down against a fallen tree, but through it all, there was Tony. In his mid-60s with a re­place­ment knee, he worked

twice as hard as any of us; lift­ing bags, peo­ple, and lla­mas out of trou­ble. Ev­ery chal­lenge was met with the same calm com­po­sure he ex­hib­ited the night of the fire. I was in awe of the en­ergy he put forth at all times and the ob­vi­ous com­pas­sion he dis­played to­wards his lla­mas and his cus­tomers. Af­ter a night camp­ing along the riverbed and an­other tough day out of the gorge, we fi­nally made it to St Ja­cob's hut, a beau­ti­ful refuge along the river with plenty of grass for the lla­mas and a fire­place for us. It felt like heaven!

An­other rest day fol­lowed. This time, we fished, hiked, and learned from Tony about the many dif­fer­ent plants and an­i­mals that can be use­ful in the bush; pep­per plants for sea­son­ing, black beech as a source for hon­ey­dew, and huhu grubs for a quick snack on the road. We made din­ner that night and hud­dled around the ra­dio we'd put up that af­ter­noon to lis­ten to the weather fore­cast for our trip out the next day. It wasn't good. Rain along the sad­dle meant the rivers would be high Tony told us. Next morn­ing's rush­ing rivers showed me just how se­ri­ous this could be. We were stuck for an­other day. Rel­e­gated to our lit­tle cabin along the river, I read my book and flicked through my seven days of notes; they were coated in smashed sand flies and sand. I couldn't be­lieve the trip was al­most over al­ready.

Re­flect­ing on the trip and how much I had learned, I'd di­gested in­for­ma­tion about lla­mas, hik­ing, the bush, and life. I'd learned how to trap, kill, cook, and use a pos­sum; how much you can as­cer­tain from the way a llama holds its ears, and of course the dif­fer­ences be­tween lla­mas and their 'fluffy brain­less' rel­a­tives, the al­paca. More than any­thing else I'd been taught a new way to ap­proach life and ad­ven­ture, and that the two are one and the same.

Our hike out was the most beau­ti­ful day of the trip. It felt fit­ting. The sun was shin­ing, il­lu­mi­nat­ing the beech for­est's bright green veg­e­ta­tion, and neon-orange lichen that coated the rocks around us. For once ev­ery­one smiled and laughed as much as Tony did, and our lla­mas stopped and feasted on the end­less green­ery around us. Our sup­port team met us at the end; wives, friends and dogs greet­ing us with cook­ies, tea, and hugs. It was a trip I'll never for­get and although I'll prob­a­bly never be half the out­doors­man Tony is, I'll do my best to try… all I need is a woolly, a cou­ple of lla­mas, and a smile to split a stump.

For more in­for­ma­tion about Han­mer Lla­mas check out their web­site www.han­mer­l­la­mas.nz

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