Ahh it's good to be back... country!
Aspiring Flats plein air. Prints available.
I've somehow been back in New Zealand for a month without going on a proper back-country mission! After bimbling around the UK for their Summer, I'd come back with the intention of bashing out as many hikes as possible. It's my happy place after all. But this whole last month has been spent distracted by lovely jubbly friends! I'll always drop everything to spend a night under the stars but after nine months of feeling decidedly transient, it's been so good reconnecting with my Kiwi tribe. )
With a return trip to Earnslaw Burn falling through, I managed to cobble together five "hiking orphans" who had similarly had plans fall through. Very last minute we managed to point the cars towards Wanaka and Mt Aspiring. The objective was the East branch of the Matukituki and Aspiring Flats. (see map at end). Some others had recently flagged it as "being better than Earnslaw Burn". One of my favourite hikes was being challenged so I had to find out for myself!
As hikes go it's relatively manageable at 3.5-4.5 hours to Junction Flat and then another hour to Aspiring Flats. Just what I needed to get me back into it. Departing from Camerons Flat, you immediately start with an optional river crossing. It would be super dangerous when the flow is higher but it's been such a dry summer we only ended up thigh deep. A brilliant way to start a hike on a hot day! (take the bridge and full track if you're in doubt).
The spacious valley views were outstanding from the go. I sighed with relief as I was finally back where I belong.
After an hour of fast paced walking through farmland you reach the tree line and have a couple of hours of "obstacle coursing". Fairly wide open beech forest but the roots and gullies creating a constant roller coaster of ups and downs, climbing over roots, shimmying around ledges. Argh I'd missed this kind of trail so much! Classic Kiwi back-country! At times it was pretty hard to spot the trail at all though so I wouldn't tackle this as your first ever hike.
The variation in the trail meant the three and a half hours flew by. The girls were various degrees of knackered though so there was a team decision to call it a day and camp at Junction Flat. I wasn't feeling it. I'd had the apparent beauty of Aspiring Flats waved at me and knowing it was only an hour further down the track I really wanted to scratch that itch. I fought my urge to be polite and go with the majority, suggesting I went rogue and spent a night to myself. "Tom, I think we can have a good time without you..." Well then. Time for a solo adventure!
My friend Marie-Claire joined me minus her pack and I tried to keep up with her as best I could. It was almost impossible with my fully loaded bag though so about half way there I called for her to go on ahead and I hit the brakes. For the first time that day I was completely on my own and the feeling of solitude really amplified the nature all around me. Fan tails cheeping cheeping around me. The noise of the river raging to my right. Everything felt peaceful. At least it did once I'd finally got my breath back and stopped wanting to throw up from chasing MC!
Eventually I caught up and hoooooooooly mackerel the reveal of Aspiring Flats is epic! There's no slow build. You just walk around one tree and BAM! ULTRA LEVELS OF BEAUTY IN YOUR FACE! There are only a few times where New Zealand scenery has almost floored me and this one was certainly up there. A huge flat plain disappearing into the distance and at the back, a 370m waterfall towering above everything. And then above THAT, another 1200m of cliffs and ice! Enough of my terrible description. I'll just let the photo do the talking...
Well, except for the sandflies. I couldn't help noticing that every time I stood still I was surrounded by a cloud of the buggers. Ahh New Zealand, I forgot you made me work for your delights. I quickly threw my tent up and spent the next half hour fighting beasties who had snuck in the door. The next problem was my daily swim... I'd managed one every day this year and all the water was outside my tent... with the sandflies... Seeing as I had the place to myself I should probably skinny dip as well... Oh lord. 3... 2... 1...
Naked run, naked run, splash splash splash to knee height. Deep breath. COLD DUNK! It was exhilarating! So much so that when I got back out, I couldn't help getting back in three more times. All the while keeping moving in the hope the sandflies wouldn't bite me in places I'd regret.
Revelling in the fact I had this entire valley to myself, I felt an urge to just stay in my birthday suit. I felt so free! I went for a little wander and within seconds spotted a flash of red tent canvas in one of the bushes! Oh lord, I'm not on my own! They don't need an eye full! Acting as calm and collected as I could, I turned around and strolled back, leaping back in to the tent and bring a fresh batch of sandflies in with me. I frantically dried as best as I could with a towel the size of a flannel, and climbed into all my warm layers. Endlessly swatting beasties that tried their best to hide in my stuff, waiting to have a munch while I slept.
Once I'd warmed back up and got the stove going, I settled into the surrounding peace and quiet. If there's one thing I've taken away from this hike (other than 30+ bites) is that in the space of a few years I've gone from never really hiking before, to being completely 100% comfortable fending for myself in the arse end of nowhere. This is super exciting because the possibilities are endless!
The night passed without too much drama. At one point waking up to a series of gusts blasting down the valley which forced me to hold on to my tent. I wished the pegs were in more than just sand! But eventually it passed and I drifted back to sleep.
The following morning I woke up naturally at dawn, feeling pretty refreshed. I snuck in a quick painting. Not my best because the light kept changing (painting at either end of the day is always the hardest!) and the morning air was still too cool to dry the paint. But at least I'd achieved what I set out to do. Then it was time to leave. Which meant taking down my tent fortress and presenting myself as a breakfast buffet to yet more sandflies. In my sleepy daze I assumed I'd be fine in shorts if I was was quick enough. A huge mistake as I collected 20+ bites on one leg! I'm still scratching them now as I write this!
I quickly made it back to the girls who had all had an equally lovely and sandfly ridden evening. I even managed to navigate my first single wire bridge without crapping my pants too much! "Don't look down... Don't look down... but... also look where you're putting your feet!?"
We made good progress back out of the valley, with spirits lifted from a good nights rest and a healthy dose of nature. Compulsory skinny dips all round, we finished up one hell of a weekend. Life is good when you're in the back country!
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