OE54 Feature: The West Coast Experience

Growing up in a small coastal town on the east coast of Australia I’d always been drawn to the mountains. I’d always imagined how my life could have been so different if only I’d be born in the alps of France, the Canadian Rockies or even just across the ditch in New Zealand. As soon as I figured out a way to escape the coast I took every opportunity I could get. I spent my weekends bashing up lantana choked gullies to then avoid the wildlife making its home in cracks, that I intended to stick my hands into, as I scrambled my way up another remote peak.

This eventually turned into work and I would take clients out on multi-day trips showing them all the we had to offer. Still, that call was there and eventually I decided to pack up my gear and make the move to New Zealand where I’d secured a job guiding on a glacier. Driving over the range to the rugged west coast I passed through Queenstown and Wanaka and I felt like I’d found paradise. Snowy peaks in every direction, mountain bike trails sneaking off into the woods from the side of the highway and paragliders thermalling above it all.

I’d like to complain about my job like everyone else but there really was nothing to complain about. I’d wake up every morning load myself and a group of clients into a helicopter and fly up onto a glacier. We would then spend the day exploring crevasses and tunnels formed as the glacier forced its way out of the valley before flying back down into town to do it all again tomorrow.

The west coast isn’t known for its accessibility and getting anywhere is either a short helicopter flight or a long walk. There really is only one road and you are either heading north or south but once you step off the highway the choices become endless. Weekends were spent trekking up remote valleys or ridges to reveal alpine lakes and glaciated valleys hidden amongst the soaring peaks of the southern alps.

After a day at work was cut short due to the weather closing in, I knew I had the perfect opportunity to sneak away for an extended weekend. I grabbed my pack, which was always waiting for me in case of a short notice adventure, stuffed it full of all the food I would need and headed out to the highway. I hitched my way to the next town north with a French girl whose English was almost as good as my French – mon couleur favourite est pomme de terre. She dropped me at the head of the valley and looked very confused as I was literally in the middle of nowhere.

Before the dust had even settled from her departure, I had turned and started following the road down from the highway to the farmhouse operating in the plains at the mouth of the valley. I wasn’t surprised to find out that they ran helicopter tours down to where I planned on going. It was tempting though to run back into town and get a carton of beer to then try and barter my way on to one of these scenic flights but instead I took the peasants approach and decided to walk.

By this time, it was already late afternoon and I had managed to cover what I thought was about half the distance to the hut before being benighted. Normally this isn’t ideal but navigation was as hard as following the river and using the suspension bridges to cross to the other side whenever the river gorged in, so I wasn’t too worried. I stumbled in to the first hut around midnight to find it just as I expected. Completely empty.

The next morning, I got to experience the scenery that was taken from me as the clouds moved in and darkness fell. The mountains above stretched to dizzying heights and I was almost above tree line as the dense cover was starting to thin. I continued my way further up this valley until I came to a fork in the river – one fork would take me up over a high mountain pass and drop me down into the valley which led to my house and the other would take me up to Ice Lake and the destination of the trip.


I reached the final hut a couple of hours after the fork and decided to leave most of my belongings there as it was only a few kilometres to the lake and directly after the hut is a river crossing. The west coast of New Zealand is one of the wettest places on earth and this always presents interesting obstacles while out hiking.

I once took a group out and we had over 600mm of rain in a twenty-four-hour period!

I decided that I probably needed a bath and the water was high so I choose to swim it rather than take a tentative walk across which would probably end up with me slipping in anyway.

I dried off as best I could on the other side and then continued to rock hop my way up to the lake. The lake is one of the most amazing places I’ve ever seen. In summer, the Shackleton glacier at the back pours into the lake at a dramatic angle leaving large chunks of ice floating around the lake. Last year’s snow still clings to the shady parts of the lakes edge. In winter, the glacier and surroundings are almost completely covered in snow and the lake is filled with large blocks of ice bobbing around.

The one thing I always forget though is how close everything is to the ocean in New Zealand. As I was sitting enjoying the well-earned view, two seagulls dropped down beside me as if they were expecting me to have hauled a bag of hot chips up for them.

I soaked in the view for as long as I could, and remembering that I’d be getting to go for another swim I started to make my way back to the hut. I was lucky to have a rare cloudless night so I dragged the mattress out of the hut and slept on the grass watching the stars roll over me. The morning chill woke me early so I shook off the frost from my sleeping bag, stuffed my gear into my pack for the final time and set off. The temptation of the river was too much so I made my way back down the valley with a mixture of floating in the river when the current was gentle and following the deer tracks through the sandy shore when it wasn’t.

I hitched back into town with a group who also spoke no English; and had no idea why a wet bearded man was standing on the side of the road. As usual though everybody in this country is extremely friendly and they had no issues picking me up and dropping me home to warm up and plan my next weekend escape.



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