The best part of our Wangapeka Track adventure came at the very end. The start bears mentioning, though. For the first time in our experience of New Zealand winter, we awoke to a hard frost and memories of struggling to share a single sleeping bag as a second blanket throughout the night. Note to self: time saved packing sleeping bag the night before is not worth a cold night.
Our Wangapeka (WONG-uh-peck-uh) planning is a text book example of how authorities would advise you NOT to plan a trip. Basically, we glanced at but did not buy the trail descriptions and maps in the DOC brochures a few days before and called it good. Fast-forward to the trailhead a few days later… A hard frost on the ground had us scratching our heads to remember where all the different shelters were along the trail. We recalled the first hut was only “a few hours” walking, so we set our sights on the next option down the trail – the Wangapeka Bivy. It was never very clear, in any of the literature, if the bivy had a stove or not. Thankfully, a hunter at the trailhead cleared up this issue for us, saving us from a miserable mistake. (Our stop at the tiny 7′ x 5′ bivy during a day hike would find it not only stove-less, but leaking terribly and smelling horribly of mildew and mold.)
We arrived at the Belltown Hut exactly three hours, five mudslips, and one painful bum-thrashing from the trailhead. Highlights included the frost-covered meadows, mudslides so treacherous a chain-bolted to the wall was little relief, and the aforementioned meeting of my right “sit bone” and a pointed boulder. Yow. It was wonderful to arrive in time to relax, read, eat, and chop wood in the DAYLIGHT! By dark, we managed to warm up the hut sufficiently (and probably inhale more wood smoke and candle fumes than a cancer-risk manager would approve of).
The following day the rain beat us to our attempted view from the pass, causing us to turn back at the horrifying bivy. We contemplated hiking out, but decided not to risk the swamp crossings in the dark. Instead, we packed and were down the front steps of the hut at daybreak. Except for sinking thigh-deep in quicksand (me), our hike out went smoothly! The coup-de-grace of the whole trip was the Irish Willy Nelson in the carpark. This character has been living in the New Zealand bush at the end of the road for 20 years. 60’s, skinny-as, braids, bandana, sharp nose, and the most cantankerous fellow you could find. He swore up a storm as he cussed his neighbor’s chickens, DOC’s management of the local area, and the careless folk who tear up “his
front yard.” I was crushed when Pat declined his invitation to come inside for “a cuppa.” (Pat was on the brink of starvation, having hiked four hours since breakfast, and having nothing but oatmeal for fourteen).
After a long “yarn,” Mr. Nelson excused himself and we eeked out our last quarter tank of gas all the way back to Westport. Little did we know, this would be our last multi-day wilderness adventure in New Zealand for a very, very long time.