Being Humbled on the Wild West Coast

When I first moved to New Zealand, I wondered if I would ever become complacent with the otherworldly scenery that surrounded me every day. I decided I wouldn’t but of course, we can’t really control things like that. Slowly, over time, I became slightly desensitized by the grandiosity of the mountains in my backyard. Yes, I’m still impressed but they don’t take my breath away every morning when I’m more focused on getting to work on time and shit, where did I leave my keys?? The more I do in the backcountry, the more confident I become and it’s getting harder and harder to find tracks that are still within my skill level but also truly shock and amaze me. 

Stafford Bay was the hike I’ve been waiting for, whether I knew it or not. We were so close to poo-pooing it off the morning of the hike, opting instead for a grander peak and more dramatic landscape but we didn’t have enough time to research something new so we stuck with the plan and headed for the West Coast around 9:30 am. 

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The track description was labeled “expert” but I couldn’t see anything on the topo map that looked expert. A well-marked track through relatively little elevation change. Should be a walk in the park. The four hour DOC estimate was immediately turned into a 3-hour estimate in my head. I’ve gotten a bit overly confident over the years, regularly smashing DOC’s estimate time, so I didn’t think this one would be much different. 

We parked near the trailhead and began the track which starts off as a relatively steep climb but it doesn’t sustain for long. The flattened trail leads you to the Smoothwater River, our first taste of river crossings for the day. Even after the years, I’ve spent hiking in New Zealand, there’s still a little part of me that wonders if it would be logical to remove my shoes for this river crossing in efforts to maintain dry feet a bit longer. The answer is always no. Reluctantly, we plunged ahead, shin-deep in the calmly flowing river. Despite being a stunningly warm day, the icy rivers froze me to the core so I added more layers and hat to keep warm. 

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Next up was the Stafford Saddle. A manageable 200 meter climb up through the bush. It was in the middle of this saddle climb that it hit me for the first time how truly isolated we were. I did a quick 360-degree turn and saw nothing but dense bush in every direction. Had there not been a meager trail cut into the forest, how on earth would anyone ever attempt to navigate this terrain? We hardly saw any wildlife aside from a few loud birds but even their chirping was short lived. I was giddy with excitement and began to understand for the first time the allure of the mysterious and wild west coast. 

The saddle was conquered quickly and we began descending, still carefully avoiding the bogs and puddles but it was all for nothing as we were quickly lead straight to another river. Actually, according to Topo maps, it wasn’t a river at all, more of an unmarked stream that started mysteriously from nowhere. The stream was at best ankle deep and at its worst knee deep but it was flowing swiftly and there was no other option: we were destined to walk in the river for the next few kilometers. 

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It was perhaps the first time in my life where I was conscious of how remote of a location we were in. Looking up, we were surrounded by 360 degrees of pure dense and impenetrable forest. It’s truly a remarkable area where the jungle meets the mountains meets the ocean. The fluorescent moss grew everywhere. No rock, no twig, no piece of bark was too inhospitable of a home for the determined fields of moss. The heavy and frequent rains of the West Coast turn the well-marked trails into overgrown hidden paths as if nature if violently trying to reclaim the land we humans have carved out. 

We spent hours walking downstream with freezing, soaking wet feet. Just when we thought we were perhaps off trail (because surely we weren’t supposed to be walking in the river for this long), a friendly orange marker would appear, cruelly assuring us the only way was the riverway. 

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Halfway down the river track, we came to a family of fallen trees that must have been uprooted in a heavy storm. Despite laying horizontally on their side, the trees were still sprouting new twigs and buds, as if it didn’t know it was dying. How strange to be in a place where even an upturned tree can sustain life for a while longer. 

When will it end, we wondered both outlaid and secretly to ourselves every second of every step. My feet had given up all hope of ever feeling warmth again. They accepted their new frozen fate in silent resignation, solemnly completing their only job: one step after another. We trudged on. Another kilometer and the map promised we’d be in the clear. Eventually, after what felt like an eternity, we met up with the Stafford river and jumped up on the bank where we would complete our walk. It was just a short jaunt from there to the hut and before we knew it, we were opening the door to the lowest hut I’ve ever been to in New Zealand, a mere 2 meters above sea level. Our hearts sang out with joy when we saw the pile of dry firewood, ready to warm us up. 

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We decided to walk to the ocean before changing clothes and taking our shoes off which proved to be a good choice because a walk to the ocean meant once again going thigh deep in the river water. Geoff chose to cross at the mouth of the river and was waist deep in a mix of salty ocean waves and freezing river streams. A well-placed log was the perfect spot to perch for a while to watch the sunset, which was about an hour away. Still, I was determined to see the sunset at the beach since it’s not something I often get to witness. After 20 minutes of fending off sandflies and becoming increasingly cold in our wet clothes, we decided we actually didn’t care that much about the sunset. In fact, it’d probably be like any other sunset we’ve ever seen. We headed back to the hut to start the fire and dry out and meet our new hut mates, Emma and Tristan from Hokitika. They had started a few minutes after us and were just arriving at the hut when we returned. They too were thrown off by the trickiness of the trail. 

 Goeff wading in waist-deep river water, feeding into the ocean.

Goeff wading in waist-deep river water, feeding into the ocean.

A belly full of dehydrated food and a few cups of wine had us ready for bed before 8 pm. As per usual with a hut night, we slept sporadically. A few times I woke up to the sound of heavy rain, suggesting the next day’s river crossings might become difficult, if not impossible. 

We woke up at 7 and jumped out of bed, determined to get back to Wanaka by 4 pm. We discussed in whispers our plan of action. Going back the way we came sounded miserable. Another two hours of freezing river walking with high river levels and the added bonus of walking upstream. The other option was walking along the coast. This was inherently dangerous. Not only did DOC explicitly say to not attempt the loop counter-clockwise (as we’d be doing) but it required expert experience with the ocean, which as a landlocked plains dweller, I certainly did not possess. As an added bonus, the route could only be attempted with low tide. We had looked at low tide times the day before so we knew we’d have the perfect window but I was a bit nervous about the coast. The roar of the waves crashing into the sand was stressful for me. Navigating tricky terrain quickly sounded even more sketchy. Luckily Geoff is a sea dweller and hardly balked at the mission. I followed his lead and we decided on the coast.

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The first half of the coastal track is tricky but manageable. We rock hopped along the rocky coast for an hour or so. Many of the rocks were disguised in algae, planting us squarely on our ass when we dared step on them. Rock hopping on slippery rocks required our full attention and we found ourselves both mentally and physically exhausted. Despite the fatigue, we were completely enthralled by the scenery and decidedly happy with our decision.

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We discovered sea caves and worked our way through a maze of tropical spires. Giddy as school kids, we made quick work of the questionable terrain. Before long, we approached the first of two steep headlands into Homminy Bay. The trail was well marked but that’s about all it had going for it. The track was steep and straight up through the densest forest I’ve ever been in. I could hardly see Geoff who was only a few meters in front of me.

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We laughed our way through the chaos and popped out the other side without too much harm done. We again carefully made our way around the rocky bay which had even more slim covered rocks determined to bring us down. Finally, we reached the last headwater which again was steep and thick. This one harder than the last, we grunted our way up and down the steep terrain. 

We were almost in the clear with just one more bay to navigate before arriving at our well-marked river track. This one was the hardest, perhaps only because we were tired and losing focus. I slipped numerous times and my balance was getting worse. Near the end of the bay, we Geoff spotted some starfish, hanging out on the rocks, getting their daily bath by the waves. I got closer to take a photo and the ocean promptly soaked me with its waves.

Finally, we were at the sketchiest part of the track, fording the tide pools. We had timed it perfectly and reached the pool at 11 am, exactly when the tide was lowest. The water was still up to my waistband and the waves still threatened to knock me around a bit but it wasn’t long until we were out of the tide pools and on the beach, happily walking towards the well-marked river track.

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*To complete this track, trampers have to time it perfectly, especially if accessing it counterclockwise. There is a set of tidal pools just after the Smoothwater River mouth that can only be traversed in low tide so timing our arrival at these pools with low tide was a total gamble. I can’t emphasize this enough: attempting to complete this track from south to north can be extremely dangerous because of the improbable chance you’ll time the hike with the low tide time at the tide pools. If you attempt it from North to South, you’ll face the pools within the first five minutes of the coastal track and can easily turn back if they are impassable, making the north to south option a lot more feasible.*

The track was a blessing after the terrain we had just crossed. A well-formed, relatively flat path. This time, instead of delicately dancing around the muddy bogs and shallow puddles, we trudged straight through, laughing at ourselves for tip-toeing along on the wet trails the day before. Anyone who attempts this walk should immediately get rid of any expectation of dry feet. The sooner you can embrace the soaking wet shoes, the better off you’ll be.

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The last forest we walked through was was completely ethereal. Everything was covered in green. Each branch, every stone, every root was glowing fluorescent green from the forest foliage. For such an inhospitable place for humans, it was a perfect home for the native flora. We were booking it through the last stretch of the forest and in great spirits, happy to have completed such a difficult track. 

Back at the car, we changed clothes quickly and tossed the bags in the car before the sandflies had the chance to eat us alive. Sadly the Cray Pot was not open so we headed back towards Wanaka, noticing that even the road into Jacksons Bay was derelict and run down, discouraging all visitors, a small omen for what’s to come at the end of the road.

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With battered bodies and in good spirits, we returned to Wanaka, new lovers of the West Coast. I’ve worked really hard over the past few years to improve my mountain skills and gain confidence in high terrain so it was super humbling to spend a weekend on the rugged coast. I quickly said goodbye to my confidence and embraced the childish screams that escaped my mouth whenever a crashing wave got just that little bit too close. I can’t help. I grew up landlocked in the American prairie, as far as you can possibly get from any salt water. It was a somber reminder of how powerful the ocean is but I can happily report by the end of this trip, the crashing waves started to sound a little bit peaceful and a little less terrifying. I’m making baby steps towards learning to love the ocean like I love the hills. Thanks, West Coast. We’ll be back for ya. 

 Looking back at the tidal pools at the mouth of the Smoothwater River.

Looking back at the tidal pools at the mouth of the Smoothwater River.

 Low tide along the coast.

Low tide along the coast.

 Me, forcing myself to love the ocean.

Me, forcing myself to love the ocean.

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