Creeped Out up the Copland Track
Updated: Oct 5, 2022
Day 1 - Copland Track to Welcome Flat Hut
With the visa deadline looming (for the fourth time) I joined a "girls hike" up the Copland Track. One of the oldest most established hut trips on the South Island. It rewards your seven hour tramp with fancy hut and large volcanic hot pools. Yum!
It's over on the West Coast so adventure buddy Tammy and I hit the road a day early to make our way up to Haast. The drive was full of nostalgia as it's the first time I'd revisited this section of the Tour Aotearoa back in 2020. I'm blown away by the sheer scale of the landscapes I pedalled my way across on a fully laden tour bike. Haast Pass is SILLY!
We stayed in the quirky, eerily deserted Wildnerness Accommodation Backpackers. A place that pre-Covid was likely a hive of activity but now lay dormant. With faded 90's posters of local attractions and comedy seagulls, it was as if time had stood still while the world sorted itself out. Having an entire place to yourselves is entertaining at first, until you realise that in a country so dependent on tourism, businesses are likely struggling to make ends meet. We spoke to the owner Oli who had his concerns. So many hostels have closed down that once the borders open back up there may no longer be the infrastructure to handle everyone.
After a morning drive with extra doses of nostalgia (being soggy at Knights Point and standing on an eel at Lake Paringa) we joined Helen and Sam for the start of day one.
The Copland Track itself is probably my favourite so far in terms of variety. Following stunning views alongside the Copland River, lots of rocks and water crossings to hop over meant I didn't get bored once in six and a half hours. If I was to try and find any negative at all it's that I'd forgotten just how much the West Coast excels at sand flies. Luckily they're attracted to black though so they swarmed my trousers and didn't seem to bother too much with actually biting me in the face! The company was good and energy levels were high so after some entertaining chat (mostly about food and sex) we made it to Welcome Flat Hut in good time. We were greeted with an entire room to ourselves (thank you Covid cancellations) and flushing toilets… in Winter… madness!
After dark all the sandflies had gone to bed so we signed the day off with a soak in the pools. My previous experience of "hot pools" consisted of digging crappy puddles, sitting in them forlornly and hoping you don't scold yourself so I was surprised to find a large volcanic pool that could fit heaps of people. It was just the right temperature too! Nestled in a valley of towering mountains, the moon lit their snow capped peaks as we gently boiled ourselves under the stars. Good work Welcome Flat. You're beautiful even when it's dark!
Day 2 - Douglas Rock Hut
Come day two things got a bit intense.
The plan was to explore further up the valley as a return trip. Anything beyond Welcome Flat is "un-maintained track" which means other than orange trail markers it's very much you vs nature. Following a steep river valley, the track has been smashed to pieces by landslides and enthusiastic little waterfalls. A crap night's sleep meant I wasn't really in the right headspace to be playing Indiana Jones and was immediately left behind!
Cycling has taught me not to chase people so I allowed myself to tramp at my own speed. The mental space did wonders and before I knew it I found myself having a whale of a time hopping across rocks and streams, seeing how quickly I could move over obstacles without breaking my ankles. I felt a little selfish as I overtook and raced ahead with my new found enthusiasm but after a solid day of trail chat and a much less solid night of sleep, going solo was just what I needed. Ankles intact, we all made it to Douglas Rock Hut together and oooh it's a beauty!
Not wanting to waste daylight we pushed on a little further and were quickly greeted by a huge extinct avalanche across the trail. I never thought I'd be so up close and personal with one and it was suuuuper unnerving clambering over its big slushy boulders the size of my torso. I didn't really know the science behind avalanches that had already "lanched" so like a sleeping dragon, I crept over it as delicately as possible. The last thing I wanted was for it to wake up and have another slide down the mountain.
It was at this point adventure greed got the better of me. I figured I still had time to solo explore even further up the valley for a second painting. Trusting that I had the right gear for the impending rain and the physical fitness and supplies to support myself, I said goodbye to the others and wandered up the next hill. Agreeing to trigger a rescue party if I wasn't back a couple of hours after dark. The solitude was really special as I ate a mandarin on top of a boulder the size of a house but it started to snow which cancelled the painting and turned me around. It was so difficult to pull myself away from finding out what was over the next ridge but luckily my safety brain kicked in as I became all too aware that I was the only person in the entire valley, four hours from safety.
This is when things got a bit weird. My return trip was full of enthusiasm at first. Skipping back across the moss covered water crossings to see how fast I could return. But as the sun got lower, tiredness meant the rocky trail that had previously been fun, now risked injuring me very very far away from help. In one swift move I cracked my knee into a hidden log. I began to slip with silly little mistakes. Eventually I ended up knee deep in a stream. This was rapidly becoming type two fun.
For no reason at all my brain then decided it would be even more fun to feel like I was being followed... I knew it was daft as I was the only one up there but deciding to look over my shoulder to double check made it SO much worse! My imagination ran wild as I pictured what it could be. Perhaps it was a big tall forest spirit a bit like a Tolkien Ent. Covered in ferns and moss. Reaching out to pull me back into the forest forever. I was sleepy. Maybe I should curl up in a ball and just let it take me...
Shortly after, the heavens opened and soaked me to the bone. I knew it was coming so I switched into "Fiordland mode". Hood up and head down. Unfortunately my hood obscured my vision so as I swiftly hopped across a stream I didn't see a fallen tree and bashed my head at full speed (for a third time). *Crunch* went my neck into my shoulders. Owwweee. It hurt to lift my arms. It hurt to move my neck. I was soaked. I'd had enough. Revelling in there being nobody to watch, I bawled my eyes out like a three year old and declared "I just *sniff* want to *sniff* be hooooome".
Luckily the hut was hiding not too far around the corner so I made it back safe and sound but I was a shell shocked mess. A brew was put in front of me. Tasty food was cooked and new friends were made so I was quickly on the mend but I've left the Copland Track with mixed emotions and some valuable lessons. It's still one of my favourites but when you're in an environment filled with so much adventure it's surprisingly easy to let curiosity and self confidence take over safety. Knowing I'd likely only be there once in my life created a huge pressure to "see everything" but all it would have taken was one slip in the wrong direction and I'd have shattered an ankle, or worse knocked myself out cold. It would have been hours until someone found me. And that's not cool. Not cool at all.
Nice work Copland. You literally knocked some sense into me.
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