Weekend Wanderings: Aoraki/Mount Cook

This weekend we went on our first little adventure away from Wanaka in a couple of months.

Our last outing was to Brewster Hut back in March. The intervening weeks were spent showcasing the best of the South Island to my visiting parents and enjoying short walks along the Clutha River and day hikes down the East Matukituki Valley.

With winter closing in, we wanted to get a final weekend of hiking in before the snow arrives.

We’ve spent a lot of time in the Central Otago area recently and we were suffering from a bit of local beauty fatigue (tough life isn’t it?), so we took the trip to Mount Cook for a change of scene.

Last time we were at Aoraki/Mount Cook we were travelling to Christchurch to return our rental van. It was a quick, cloudy visit then and we’d always intended to make another trip to have a proper explore.

The sun was shining on a glorious, crisp winter morning as we set off on the two and a half hour drive from Wanaka.

Travelling through the modest mountains surrounding the Lindis Pass, towards the fluorescent blue Lake Pukaki, the 3,724m Aoraki/Mount Cook manages to remain hidden among the high peaks of the Southern Alps, only revealing itself as we near the top of the lake.

The tallest peak in New Zealand, it really is an impressive sight. Dominating the valley, Aoraki demands attention and respect. It’s a beautiful and imposing mountain, where the great Sir Edmund Hillary honed his alpine skills prior to his successful summit of Everest.

We wouldn’t be attempting anything quite as demanding as Hillary’s expeditions, but we’d be getting as close to the mountain as the paths would allow us.

We had planned two short hikes, both around three hour returns. Firstly, we wanted to walk the complete Hooker Valley Track. We’d walked a short portion of it on our last visit and were keen to complete the trail this time.

A fresh chill in the air, we set off along the gently meandering path that follows winding Hooker River, the frozen Mueller Lake on our left, separating us from the snow covered Mount Sefton.

As small avalanches were audible from Sefton’s slopes, our feet crunched through the snow and ice patches on the path. The low winter sun failing to reach some parts of the valley floor meant that there were some dicey patches of ground with frost in place from dawn to dusk. The frost forming delicate flower like structures on the rocks and plants around us added to the feeling that we were walking in a winter wonderland.

Mount Sefton stands tall and snow capped at Aoraki/Mount Cook
Mount Sefton

As we crossed the three bridges that zigzag the river, we turned a corner and there in front of us in all its majesty was Aoraki/Mount Cook with the largely frozen Hooker Lake at its base, dotted with icebergs.

A bridge over the Hooker River, with Mount Sefton in the background
A bridge over the Hooker River, with Mount Sefton in the background
Cairns on the shore of Hooker Lake
Cairns on the shore of Hooker Lake
Aoraki/Mount Cook
Aoraki/Mount Cook
Reaching the end point of the path, we sat and ate our lunch, watching the sunlight reflect off the south face of the mountain and skimming stones along the ice covered lake, the swirling rocks and ice chips creating alien whistles that echoed around the valley.

With the sun dipping below Mount Sefton not much later than 2pm, we headed back to the village to check in to our hostel before heading to the pub. Here we bumped into some fellow travellers we met the previous Saturday evening in a Wanaka bar and shared a few drinks again.

The sun sets at Mount Cook Village
The sun sets at Mount Cook Village

The next day we were up early in -6 degrees centigrade temperatures to wend our way up the 2200 steps of the Sealy Tarns Track.

The Sealy Tarns Track makes up half of the route to the Mueller Hut, somewhere that has been on our list for a while and where we will be staying in the Spring or Summer to come.

Expecting something as arduous as our Brewster Hut trek, the Sealy Tarns steps were a pleasantly simple surprise, providing ever improving views back towards Aoraki/Mount Cook.

Reaching the Sealy Tarns plateau, we had the hills to ourselves for about half an hour, joyously basking in the peace and stillness around us.

We’re extremely lucky to live in a beautiful part of the world and we’ll miss being able to hike during the winter. The snow will make the majority of tracks impassable.

However, with the snow comes the opportunity to enjoy the mountains in another way.

Soon we will begin learning to snowboard at Cardrona. We’ll be pioneering a new style of snowboarding where the participant spends the majority of their time falling on their arse. We’ll let you know how we get on.

And if that wasn’t enough excitement for one winter, we’ve got the small matter of a British Lions tour to enjoy. 

Weekend wanderings: Brewster Hut and Mount Armstrong

After a few weeks off, this weekend we thought we’d get back on the trail and hike to Brewster Hut – somewhere between Haast and Makarora in Westland.

What the hike lacks in distance, it makes up for in elevation. The 2.5km walk from the car park, through a river, dense woodland and along narrow ridges to the hut involves a steep ascent to an altitude of 1400 metres.

We set off from the car park at the bottom of the valley and were immediately confronted by a shallow, gentler river. After my previous attempt at wading across a river, we take extra care crossing this one. 


Relieved not to have embarrassed myself or terrified Steph this time, we reach the other side, where our relief instantly turns to dread as we see the vertical bank that faces us and extends up in front of us into the vague distance above our heads.

This is our route up the mountain to Brewster Hut, which has been on our to do list for months.

Its should take us three hours. Not much really. Easy even. We’ve done much longer walks in terms of both time and distance. It’s steep, yeah, but we’ll manage it alright.

Minutes pass. Minutes that feel like hours as the incline takes its toll on our legs. An audience of trees draped in cloaks of lichen and moss listen to our sporadic conversation, snatched between exhausted, heavy breaths. “How much further?” “I’m knackered” “Whose bloody idea was this?!”

Tangled roots provide steps and handrails that are equal parts help and hindrance as we traipse along the path, through the heart of this typically magical New Zealand beech forest.


As we trudge on, higher and higher, the magic morphs into mundanity. After an hour in the woods, the hut feels increasingly like a mirage.

We meet two walkers coming back down who tell us “There are a couple of flat bits coming up. Savour then”. Oh great. 

We continue, encouraged by the promise of more level ground. Flat is a bit of a stretch, but the lessening strain is welcomed. Eventually we make it to the top of the bush line, out onto the open moorland and the ridgeway to the hut.

Steph is delighted by the change of scene, escaping from the tedious repetition of the woodland scenery as stunning views of the valleys below open up on either side of us. I however curse the narrow path, the lack of shade and the sabre toothed undulation of the ridge. I wish it was over. I’m getting hot and angry and tired. 


Then, just as I am reaching the end of my tether, we see the beige corrugated iron of the hut toilet and all was well in the world. Rarely has a toilet brought such joy to our lives.

We get to the hut, claim a bunk, and then unwind on the deck, soaking up the sun, the view and chat to our fellow trampers.




We look up to Mount Armstrong ahead. Cloud has blown in and it’s not worth the two hour hike to the summit this evening. We’ll do that in the morning.

Hours, conversations, food and drink pass and before long we’re all out watching the sunset over the mountains behind us and gazing at the stars and Milky Way above.

The next morning the sky is cloudless and we make the trip to the summit of Mount Armstrong (2174 metres) in two short hours. We do our best to follow the litany of cairns to the top, improvising our own path where necessary, climbing over up gullies and over skree on the way. This stage of the hike is beautiful. Great weather, wonderful views of mountains, glaciers and rivers, and a perfectly manageable gradient. Bliss.

From the summit we can see out to the ocean to the west – or at least where we know the ocean is, it’s covered in cloud – and into the heart of the country, towards Mount Cook to the east. The is no wind, no noise, just glorious peace and unbridled natural beauty.



It’s the first time we’ve reached a summit and not been cloaked in cloud. It’s easy to see why people get to the top of Everest and other big mountains and spend too long up there. The tranquillity is mesmerising, the rest after the effort of getting there is addictive and the sense of self satisfaction is warming. Not that our two hour trip is anything akin to conquering Everest! But it’s easy to extrapolate.
Soon we head down, knowing we have at least another five hours ahead of us, most of which will be back down the nerve wracking ridge and through the forsaken forest. 



This time it’s even worse, trying not to fall to certain injury over the roots as we try if fight our bodies’ urges to succumb to gravity and the slippery earth beneath our feet. We take tentative steps, slide on our arses, us trees to break us, roots as ropes to abseil larger drops in the level of the path over the longest three hours of our lives. 

It’s a good job the weather was so good and the views so special because if this weekend had been little more than walking up and down this rancid heap of a hill I’d have forever rued the day we ever heard about the Brewster Hut.

This is not a hike for fair weather walkers. It’s hardly a hike for regular tampers. If you can, get a helicopter to the hut, you’ll enjoy it a lot more and won’t hate the fact you exist for 50% of the trip.

Thanks to the physical and mental hardship we at least felt like we had earned the beer and burger we got from Red Star when we got home. One large, delicious crumb of comfort after an exhausting, but mostly enjoyable, weekend.

Weekend wanderings: Gertrude Saddle

Another weekend, another hike. This time we ventured a bit further afield, back into the awe-inspiring Fiordland, and took on the challenging Gertrude Saddle.

Found on the Te Anau side of the Homer Tunnel, the Gertrude Saddle is a hike that is pretty easy on the body but takes a lot of concentration and care. 

If you’re prepared to go through flooded streams and rivers, navigate skree and boulders without markers and scale a smooth rock face with steel cables, the views across Fiordland into Milford Sound are astonishingly rewarding.

It’s doable in half a day, but it’s best to take your time, especially if – like us – you’re not massively experienced routefinders. Stop regularly to spot the next marker and keep in mind that a straight line is unlikely to be the safest route from one pole to the next. 

The markers stop about two thirds of the way up and from there you have to walk across skree and boulder field, then climb up rock face with the aid of steel cables.

The Department of Conservation say the return walk should take between four and six hours. It took us five and a half, including a lengthy stop in the saddle to gawp at the view, and an earlier stop for lunch and to dry off after falling in a stream at the start of the hike.

This is by far the hardest walk we have done to date. While Roy’s Peak and Meg Hut were lung busters, Gertrude Saddles tested our judgement like never before.

Respect for mountain landscapes is crucial, knowing your limits and not being afraid to call it off if the ground or the weather is too difficult.

I was reminded of this in embarrassing fashion less than 15 minutes into the walk. After waking through flooded streams at shin height, we came to yet another, this time with what looked like a simple hop from one rock to another to clear the stream. I made it, but hadn’t taken into account the slippery rocks, my sodden boots and the weight of the bag on my back. In an instant I fell backwards into the stream, landing on my back, up to my chest in fast flowing water. My clothes were soaked, I was shocked and embarrassed, and my fellow walkers more than a little worried. 

I was very lucky not to hit my head on a rock or injure a limb, because I’d have missed out on something very special at the top. I’m just glad Steph’s camera wasn’t in the bag. She’d never have forgiven me!

Photographs from Gertrude Saddle

Weekend wanderings: Meg Hut

Now we’re all settled in our home and jobs, we’ve got our weekends (Tuesdays and Wednesdays) to get out exploring more of New Zealand and tick off some of the things on our ever growing to do list. Here’s the first one we did.

Meg Hut hike

Last week, 31 January and 1 February, we hiked up to Meg Hut in the Piza Range just outside Wanaka, in Cardrona.

The short two hour hike seemed pretty straight forward when we read about it, but following the quite direct 4×4 vehicle track was a pretty gruelling route, but the steep climb took in some pretty incredible views. It spoils you really, living somewhere with easy access to beautiful scenery. It becomes normal and you have to remind yourself how lucky you are sometimes. There’s no better way to bring that home than to get out amongst the landscape.

Meg Hut is a secluded stop in the heart of the Piza Range, a centre point for walks over the peaks between Cromwell, Cardrona and Queenstown.

The hut is next to a meandering river in the bottom of a valley, surrounded by dominating, dusty, grey mountains and dead pine trees. As you approach the hut from higher ground it looks quite eerie.

We shared the eight berth hut with a couple from Belgium and three New Zealander’s. We chopped up some of the wood outside, got a fire going and spent the evening chatting, eating and drinking while the rain fell outside. There aren’t many more relaxing way to spend the waning hours of the day.

However, once we went to bed, the relaxation was replaced by frustration and mystery as the hut’s resident mouse scuttles around the floor, over beds and into backpacks. A disturbed night to say the least.

Photographs from Meg Hut hike

The end of the road

Recently our travels around New Zealand came to an end.

After completing the Milford Track on 2 December, we headed back to Te Anau, prepared to work our way around the southern coast, up towards Christchurch, Mount Cook and on to Wellington where we planned to set up home.

Our initial hope was to base ourselves in wonderful Wanaka, but with Steph not having a job offer there, the cost of living being so expensive and competition for housing being so strong, we thought it best to go north where we could enjoy less stressful, financially draining living and pick up office temping and agency work.

Our final trip in the van took us from Te Anau, down south to the featureless wasteland of Invercargill. Truly, this town is one of the most achingly dull places imaginable. Like a forgotten Victorian resort town, it was row after row of once grand homes and municipal buildings, faded glories and a sense of emptiness.

One night to stop on our way to Dunedin was one night too many in this bleak and hopeless town.

The drive from Invercargill, along the southern shore, through the Caitlins was the perfect antidote. The remote, rolling green hills flanked by long stretches of golden beaches and secretive coves was reminiscent of Cornwall.


While there we saw some lovely sights including one of only three fossilised forests in the world and walked through beachside caves as tall as cathedrals.

We arrived in Dunedin later that evening. Taking its name from the Gaelic moniker for Edinburgh, the city and New Zealand’s ties with Scotland are emphasised here, with tartan adoring many a gift shop.

The city itself is quite loveable, packing in a huge range of great bars and restaurants, a prestigious university and thriving student social scene into what is a small centre.

On the outskirts of the city is one of New Zealand’s richest areas of wildlife. The Otago Peninsula is home to the world’s only mainland breeding ground for Albatross and also plays host to penguins, gulls and other seabirds along with semi-regular sightings of dolphins and whales.

We took the opportunity to visit the Albatross nesting site and were treated to the sight of half a dozen Albatross flying around the cliffs and sitting in their nests. As a bit of a bird nerd, this was a very exciting moment, having wanted to see Albatross since witnessing them on David Attenborough narrated nature documentaries as a child.

Later that day we moved on to a campsite on the seafront at Oamaru. By day the town is home to the Steampunk HQ, surrounding its visitors with amazing contraptions that simultaneously pay homage to the industrial past and imagine a mechanised future.

By night it is home to little blue penguins who sleep and nest each night on the campsite we stayed in. We watched the little critters waddle out of the sea and into our campsite, part enamoured by their cuteness and part horrified by their loud, strangled calls. We were also horrified by the two penguins who proceeded to mate with each other at our feet as we sat on the harbour wall. Get a room guys!

From there we headed inland, through central otago and Richie McCaw‘s home town of Kurow, towards Mount Cook. On route we’d be passing through a town called Omarama.

Here there was a crossroads. Left to Wanaka, right to Mount Cook. We stopped for some lunch and checked our phones to find job interview offers for each of us back in Wanaka.

After much discussion we decided it would be best to go to Wanaka, have the interviews, see how they went and evaluate setting up home there after all.

We made a list of pros and cons, Wanaka versus Wellington. Wanaka was by far the worst choice from a financial, housing and career point of view, but it had everything we could want to do right in the doorstep, from skydiving, to sailing, to hiking. Wellington offered better housing and employment opportunities, plus regular flights down to Queenstown from where we could go and adventure.

It was an agonising decision, but we didn’t come all the way to the other side of the world to do the same jobs in a different city, so we took a punt on Wanaka.

After making the choice, we raced from Wanaka to Christchurch to return our rental van and buy a car, squeezing in one last trip on the way.

The peaks around Mount Cook were shrouded in cloud when we arrived, but happily revealed themselves that evening and the following day. A delightful way to say goodbye to our van.

In Christchurch we returned Severus to his home. We were genuinely sad to see him go having spent the last 50 days travelling and living along with him. We managed to buy a Volkswagen Passat estate from an Irish couple who were leaving New Zealand for Australia and after a weekend exploring the city, we drove to 500km back to our new base in Wanaka.

Since then we’ve started our jobs – Steph working in a liquorstore, me in a DIY shop – and been house hunting while living in holiday parks. We’ve met many new friends, won a $50 bar tab for winning a pub quiz and generally had a fantastic time.

All that’s missing is the home, but after many applications with various agents, we feel like we’re getting somewhere and will hopefully be offered a place in the New Year.

Housing here is scarce, especially at this time of year. With 38% of houses in the Queenstown Lakes District being second or holiday homes, many of the rentals available through the rest of the year are used by the owners during Christmas and New Year. Add that to the hundreds of migrant workers, like ourselves, and natives coming here for the summer and an exciting change of life and it soon adds up to a housing crisis.

Wanaka is growing, they’re constantly building new homes here, but that takes time and demand is extremely high.

If anywhere is in need of subsidised housing for people working in low income industries, Wanaka is it. You can build as many half a million dollar homes for the middle and upper classes as you like. People serving them their drinks and packing their groceries still need somewhere to live.

It’s funny really. We’ve come all this way only to find New Zealand facing many of the same issues as the United Kingdom.

In January more homes should come back on the market and we’re hopeful we’ll find somewhere then.

In the meantime, Steph’s boss’s In Laws have very kindly put us up in their studio flat in their garden, so we’ll be spending Christmas here before moving into our own place in January.

Now that our travels are over and we’re working, the nature of this website will change slightly. We’ll still update you on our adventures as we spend weekends away, but the website will offer advice and reviews for other travellers, and hopefully we’ll get a bit of time and a wifi good enough to upload the occasional brief podcast.

Thanks for reading and Merry Christmas to you.

Steve and Steph xx

New Zealand’s Great Walks: Rainy Routeburn and Magnificent Milford

As many of our avid readers will know (there are definitely loads of you – it’s not just me shouting into a narcissistic void), we have recently completed two of New Zealand’s most famous Great Walks.

These were multi-day hikes in the utterly stunning Fiordland area. Firstly along the Routeburn Track, then the Milford Track.

After trekking more than 80km over the course of the two walks, our legs were aching the beauty of Fiordland had swept us off our feet once more.

Routeburn was rainy but our spirits were not dampened, despite seeing nothing but grey cloud at the walk’s famous viewpoint – the Harris Saddle. The clouds and rain couldn’t hide all the views, and while it was wet, it’s wasn’t as bad as the forecasts and the rangers predicted.

Staying in communal huts each night, we met some great people from all over the world including Germany, Netherlands, Canada and America. Between sharing tales of travelling New Zealand, competing in quizzes run by the Department of Conservation wardens and gathering round the log fires there was plenty to distract us from the less than excellent weather.

We were glad we were walking it at that time though as snow was forecast down to 600m the day after we finished. Although given how overly pessimistic the forecasts had been, we were a little dubious about it.

Sure enough to snow came, and it caused havoc. The Routeburn and nearby Kepler tracks were closed. People had to be helicoptered off the track. Milford was also closed, and while the snow had made the mountains looks great, we began to seriously worry about whether we’d be able to do the Milford.

After a couple of days rest in Te Anau, we set off for the longer Milford Track. Billed as the most beautiful walk in the world, it had a reputation to live up to. With Fiordland being one of the wettest places on earth – average annual rainfall of nine meters and 255 days of rain a year – we were surprised and cautiously optimistic to see a forecast for four consecutive days of sunshine, something that’s almost unheard of in the area.

These tracks are one way, multi day hikes, so we had to leave our van in the car park and get it moved to the end. For both Routeburn and Milford we used Trackhoppers, who were excellent. It’s run by a local guy called Mike and his business partner. They’ve each done a vehicle move along the Routeburn almost 100 times, driving the 500km road route from Glenorchy to The Divide and then running the 30km back along the Routeburn track in one day. There’s always somebody who has to do it a harder way.

Photographs of New Zealand’s South Island

It’s been a while since we’ve been able to upload any photos of our trip. In fact, this is the first time since we arrived on the South Island back at the start of November.

But, as promised in a couple of more recent posts, here are Steph’s photographs from our journeys on the south side of the Cook Strait.

These photos cover our trip from Abel Tasman National Park in the north, down to Wanaka, Queenstown and Fiordland in the south.

On Tuesday 29 December we head out on the second of our Great Walks, along the Milford Track. We’ll add photos from that walk and our wander along the Routeburn Track soon(ish).