While most people were packing up their camping gear for another season and heading into the hibernation period we all know as winter, ours was just beginning to ramp up.
Now, I’ll be honest with you when my good friend Dylan called me up asking if I wanted to join him and a few of our crew on a winter camping roadie through the Southern alps my initial reactions were somewhere along the lines of “are you mad” and “I think I’m busy that week”. But soon enough my mind began dreaming of the beautiful landscapes and I found the words “I’m in, let’s do this” leaving my mouth.
Our crew was made up of myself, Pizzaboy Dylan and his partner Brooke, NZ ‘s most eligible bachelor Paul, Laura from Uruguay and Luka the husky. The plan was pretty simple, we’d spend 10 days navigating our way down the middle of the South Island in search of epic adventures and good times.
If you’ve ever had the pleasure of visiting the South Island you’ll know it’s an insanely beautiful part of the country. Combine that with the fact that both Paul and Dylan own two of finest 60 Series Land Cruisers in New Zealand and you’ve got an adventure photographer’s idea of nirvana. To say I was excited would be a bit of an understatement.
When a winter blast hit the country a couple of weeks out from our departure that excitement quickly turned to panic when I realised my balmy summer sleeping bag wasn’t going to hack it. It was time to go shopping. It’s important to realise that when camping in cold weather environments you really need to be prepared, as things can get serious pretty quickly when temperatures drop into the negatives.
With the trucks packed, bikes loaded and an almost empty wallet, we were ready to hit the road.
Our journey began with a 4am mad dash from Tauranga to catch an early afternoon ferry to Picton, eventually ending up in the Nelson lakes area where we’d planned to set up camp for the night. After a big day of driving and arriving in the dark you really come to appreciate the ease and convenience of the Feldon Shelter Crow's Nests. Within a matter of minutes both tents were set up, and everyone was drifting off to sleep.
Next up was Arthurs Pass, via a little detour to the west coast in search of a perfect beachside breakfast spot. The drive through Arthurs pass is a pretty scenic one and after telling our friend Laura about life growing up in New Zealand, we quickly realised how truly lucky we are to live in a place like this. A real highlight of this area has to be the North Gully bridge. Make sure you stop at the lookout, the view into the gully is unreal. Just watch your gear as there’s an unruly gang of Kea’s patrolling the area up there.
Our campsite for the night was in the Craggieburn National Park. We arrived with enough time to find the perfect camp spot situated at the bottom of some mountain bike trails. With tents up, we snuck off for a quick ride before settling in for dinner and a few whiskeys. If the surrounding snow-capped mountains weren’t proof enough that it was winter, then the -5 degree temperature certainly was. The night sky was clear, and we spent the next few hours swapping stories under the bright lights of the milky way. Tomorrow we would meet up with friends Ben and Eve for an adventure into the Hopkins Valley. Excitement levels were high.
The drive down to Lake Ohau didn’t disappoint. The recent winter blast had plummeted the central Otago temperatures into the negatives leaving the area in the grips of rare Hoar frost. A sight to behold and something I’ll remember for years to come. After a few mandatory stops at Lake Tekapo and Pukaki we arrived in Lake Ohau around mid-afternoon and began making our way up the Hopkins valley in search of a suitable spot to setup camp for the night.
The drive up the Hopkins Valley is a mixture of shingle rock, 4wd tracks and river crossings. Ten minutes into this journey we were all reminded of the importance of traveling in a group with Ben getting a bit over zealous in a deep section of mud. This is where the importance of planning really comes in. You need to make sure your vehicle is up for the task and always carry recovery gear. Thankfully the trusty Land Cruisers were on hand to give old mate Ben a helping hand.
With Ben and Eve free from the clutches of the southern mud, we rocked and rolled our way up past the Red Hut stopping only to chat with a few hunters along the way. With the sun quickly disappearing past the mountains we set up camp for the night. This was the best day and night of the trip for me. A few laughs around a toasty fire with like-minded people surrounded by the southern alps.
After the adventure of a lifetime in the Hopkins Valley we spent next few days exploring the Wanaka and Queenstown areas before I sadly had to fly home and resume my dad/husband duties leaving the rest of the crew to make their way back up North.
Photos & Words by Phil Harris.