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”.
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