Adventure in the Southern Alps, New Zealand

In January 2019 I departed the UK for two years in New Zealand. In my late twenties and early thirties my confidence outdoors has grown and moving to New Zealand revealed opportunities galore to adventure further out of my comfort zone than is generally possible in the UK.

I winded up living in a town called Wanaka near the Southern Alps in the South Island. There I befriended a local guy who was able to show me places I might not have been brave enough to go to alone, we quickly became adventure buddies. Reflecting on my time adventuring around Wanaka I’d like to share this particular highlight, a magical adventure.

To get there you have to drive around 50 km out of Wanaka and then it is around 10 km to Aspiring Hut, which we opted to travel by mountain bike.

My adventure buddy and I decided to stay the night in a mountain hut called French Ridge. This is a popular adventure but an adventure nonetheless. The hut is based on a ridge on Mt French beside Mt Aspiring which is the largest mountain in the national park bearing its name. Climbers use this hut as a stop off on their way to summit Aspiring and the hut is placed 1463m above sea level. To get there you have to drive around 50km out of Wanaka and then it is around 10km to Aspiring Hut, which we opted to travel by mountain bike.

Biking through Matukituki valley– my friend insisted I carted my bike up here to get the perfect shot!

This ride filled me with joy as I capitalised on my growing confidence on two wheels. Travelling through creeks and bogs we made it to the hut where we hid our bikes out of sight of the keas. Keas are the World’s only alpine parrot, unique to the South Island and endangered. They are incredibly inquisitive and they’ll steal food straight out your hand. They also love rubber so they are famous for stripping vehicles and bikes of wipers and grips!

A kea on the summit of Ben Lomond, Queenstown. Their name derives from their call ‘keeeaa, keeeeaa’!

After that it is roughly an hour’s hike to the base of the mountain where you can get refills of fresh glacial water from the creek. The skies were blue and the sun shone bright providing us with amazing views of the majestic Matukituki valley. We opted to wade across the creek to save a 2 km trip to a bridge and we braced ourselves to ascend 920m in 2 km with everything we needed for the night on our backs.

I was in my element getting to scramble hands and feet up the bush. I have done many steep hikes in New Zealand and your legs get heavy from taking huge step after step. Here you had to pull yourself by the arms as much as pushing up by the legs so it felt easier even though it was the steepest hike by far. At times it was vertical and you had to scramble up on rocks and tree roots.

Loving every minute of the steep climb up

At the bushline it levels out and you are rewarded with epic views down the valley. Above were glaciers and below were forests and rivers. All around were mountains and waterfalls and the sound of running water. This alpine section was tougher relying mostly on leg power but I knew the hut would remain out of sight until we reached it.

FrenchRidge Hut-NewZealand
French Ridge Hut, New Zealand

When the hut finally appeared over a ridge it was magnificent against the backdrop of the Maud Francis glacier. There was snow just above us and in the valley beside us a river flowed with the last of the winter snow melt. We spent the evening enjoying views and wandering the ridge. At one point we heard a huge crack like a firework and then rumbling. Looking out the window we witnessed an avalanche on the mountain next to us rumble on and on. The section of snow which had slipped seemed so small but it fell for what seemed like an eternity.

When the hut finally appeared over a ridge, it was magnificent against the backdrop of the Maud Francis glacier.

That night I was kept awake by unbearable itching, having fallen prey to the infamous South Island sandflies at the creek. Similar to Scotland’s midgies, they prefer on certain individuals more than others and I am one of the unlucky ones. We woke early from the howling wind and rain. Setting off during a brief dry spell we made it most of the way to the bushline before the sleet hit. With the wind picking up and we navigated cautiously as we passed close to a steep edge. Lowered ourselves down with cold fingers, taking steep steps with our packs on our backs and slippery tree roots under foot. Returning to the creek we were grateful to hydrate and chose to hike to the bridge to avoid getting even colder and wetter.

Lowering ourselves down with cold fingers, taking steep steps with our packs on our backs and slippery tree roots under foot.

Once back at Aspiring Hut we were apprehensive about the bike ride but once we got turning the pedals we both felt the relief of having the weight off our wet, cold feet. The wind was behind us as we passed hikers heading out of the valley bracing themselves against the wind and rain. To change gear involved looking at my cold hand and commanding it to move, it felt like it took all of my energy to press that lever. Muddy and wet we arrived back at the car, delighted to be heading back to the warmth.

Truly the mountains have their own weather system, as we drove away with the heating on high we emerged into full summer over Wanaka. The whole experience was an adventure just like the ones I’d dreamt of having in New Zealand. I love that access to wild outdoors feels easier here and I feel truly privileged to have lived somewhere so magical with opportunities to explore and gain confidence.

Outhouse at French Ridge Hut
Outhouse at French Ridge Hut

As challenging as life in New Zealand has been I have learned to push myself, trust myself and test my limits. These lessons have extended far beyond the mountains, providing me with understanding to lean on during the events of 2020. The outdoors is my sanctuary, my escape and my teacher. The outdoors will always be there whatever life brings. The outdoors is for everyone, it does not judge and it does not hold favour.

About the Author

Jen photo

Follow more of Jen’s outdoor passion and adventures on Instagram @wellwildwanderer and for photography.

 Photo Credits:  Jen Rose

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