Black Belt Tramp

Posed on the precipice

“Tramp” in the mind of some Americans, is a dis-used word that deragatorily describes a certain “type” of woman. Alternatively, it is a grey mutt in a Disney film – as in “Lady and the…” To Kiwis “tramp” is something you can do, something you can go on… and for those who like that sort of thing, it’s a lot of fun! Pat and I confess that we’re among the latter crowd. In fact, it was what sold us on New Zealand – the endless, beautiful tramps the country has to offer.

I consider myself advanced or experienced when it comes to tramps. I’ve spent lots of time in the field, I have all the gear, and I have even taken classes on the subject. But nothing could have prepared me for New Zealand’s tramps. When Pat and I researched our first New Zealand tramp, the warnings of difficulty fell on unsympathetic ears. In the U.S., a “difficult” tramp rating usually means the participant will be uncomfortable if they can’t sprint the length of a football field. As we strapped on our backpacks loaded with synthetic clothing, water, backcountry food, a tent, and a cookstove, we hadn’t even begun to imagine what the Cameron Creek watershed had in store for us.

We didn’t want to park our possession-filled van on the roadside unattended for days, so we tried our hand at hitching up to Cameron Flat. It wasn’t long before Nicole, a raven-haired teenager from a small town an hour away, picked us up. Despite the missing back window and exhaust-filled car, we had a nice chat during our 20km ride with her.

The sign in the parking area warned us again about “experienced only” and “quality significantly diminished beyond lookout.” We forged ahead! We kept pace with a European mother/daughter duo who eyed our packs with curiosity. At the lookout they turned back and we quickly learned that “quality diminished” in kiwi-speak means “fallen into dis-use/overgrown/washed out/landslide filled.”

On our way to Cameron Hut we experienced hours of literal climbing and descending – a constant 5.5 -5.8 for those of you who know rockclimbing – all the while poised halfway up a steep canyon wall. The ground wore a slippery layer of tiny tree leaves akin to chainsaw leavings. Glints of freshly cracked slate slabs , towering rock faces, and a crystalline creek were amazing distractions. After two hours, we arrived at our first New-Zealand-style river crossing. Bridges are for wimps, apparently. We assumed the position (for a two-person swift water crossing) and made it across without being torn down by the icy, rushing stream. After three more hours of constant ravine and landslide crossings in waterlogged boots, our glorious grassy river flat complete with remote moutain hut appeared!

For the first time in my life, at the end of a backcountry slog, I entered a tiny building and lit a fire in a cast-iron stove. Seredipitously, we had the cascading waterfall, cozy bunks, and quiet night sky completely to ourselves. We spent the next day bushwacking straight up the mountain behind the hut, literally crawling through thickets for half the day. The view was its own reward, and I made friends with all the local flora! Our trip out was just as adventurous as the journey in, and the infamous “world heritage” highway was a welcome sight. To our delight, an Englishman named Patrick responded to the beckoning of our thumbs within minutes of arriving at the roadside. His kind assistance in getting us back to our temporary home was the perfect end to our first New Zealand Black-Belt backpacking trip!

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