Friday, 1 March 2013

New Zealand : Avalanches and Arrests

As days go this was turning out to be not one of my best ones. I was wedged up to my chest in boulders of ice and snow. My right arm forced aloft, high above my head, hand clutching my walking pole as if in some excalibur re-enactment, a hand rescuing it from misty waters. Damn. The fall into the snow had caused my rucksack to ride up my jacket and it now pressed into the back of my skull, its straps digging into my armpits like a pair of  helping hands trying to prise me out of my icy hole. My right foot was in mid-air, a gap between the snow and the river whose roar I could still hear beneath the avalanche debris field I was on..or should I say in! My left foot was on something solid, a rock, maybe. I shifted my right foot across to join its companion and stood there, encased in snow thinking hmm this is rather misfortunate.

There is something to be said about travelling alone. I never really seem to panic that much. When there's only yourself to contend with things just need to be dealt with instinctively without all the drama that 2 heads may create and my mishaps (to me) become amusing rather than frightening, (or maybe that's just the way I cope with coping) and as I stood there hapless and encased - yet fairly cool and comfortable (apart from the strangling rucksack) having worked up a bit of a sweat on my ascent - I wondered why the 2 young men I'd seen hiking in the opposite direction hadn't warned me there was an avalanche field to cross. At that moment I heard more rocks and snow crashing down from the gully above and then it slowly began to dawn on me, the avalanche had just happened and was still happening. Ok time to get out of here.

I recalled my uncontrollable giggles once watching Harry Hill's comments on BearGrylls trying to get out of an ice hole and with that I, with a swimming action, a flurry of arms, a kick of the legs, belly slapping and intermittent grunts in a manner as cumbersome as the fur seals I’d seen lumbering over the rocks of Kaikoura, flopped out of my icy tomb on to the cold surface and cautiously slid and scrambled over the snow blocks to the safety of the tussocked slope.

The exertion had made me hungry. I sat looking wistfully at the avalanche debris and the Blue Lake beyond, so close yet it now seemed unattainable but maybe after a bowl of pasta I'd feel reenergised and could find another way to cross that was not going to result in me falling through the snow again and deposited this time into rapids for a white water adventure. I’d hiked for 3 days through mossed forests of beech, tripping over the roots, wading through streams, clambering over rocks, keeping warm at nights chopping logs for the woodburner stove in backcountry huts - shared once with a hunter and his gun and the other with a family of mice - to see this remote Blue Lake in the Nelson Lakes area of New Zealand's South Island. A lake so pure and clear that there is a visibility of up to 80m.

 It was thanks to being 'arrested' that I’d had this opportunity to leave my bike and explore by foot...

“Yes, we’re arresting this girl. Interpol have been after her for illegal camping around the world for over a year and half” boomed the stentorian voice of Greg from New Zealand’s Department of Conservation to the confused young German man in a striped beanie who watched as my bicycle and panniers were loaded into a pick up truck.

 I'd returned to my tent hidden in the trees of St Arnauds magnificent lakeside to find a message pinned to my tent
My temporary home had been spectacular while it lasted. I was unused to rules and regulations in New Zealand having always had to wild camp where possible on this journey and in need of free accommodation more than ever now that my bank account was empty. Yet it wasn't just about it being free, it was about being among the nature, the solitude and away from the ubiquitous white campervans and boggy campgrounds

I wasn't proud of my reaction to the "stop squatting on our land note" nor for my frustrated plea interlaced with a rant about trying to cycle round the world on a budget of zero when Greg came to check if I'd moved. I knew it was my fault and problem and not his of course but he saw my desperation and said look I know a place where you can freedom camp, let me drive you there. After my bicycle and panniers were loaded into his van we left the young German still standing there perplexed with his uneaten bowl of spaghetti in hand. Greg was silent for a while as we drove away from the lake then
Look I cant let you camp the weather is going to be bad. Come and stay with me and my family.

And so it was that I stayed in the garage of this wonderful family who fed me, washed my stinking muddy clothes, shared their lives with me and then lent me some tramping gear so I could make the most of the area when the weather improved and showed me the route I could take to reach the mysterious Blue Lake.

Pasta I need pasta! I was feeling the cold now and probably a little shaken from my snow hole encounter. I reached into my rucksack for my other food bag having split the supplies in two: for the journey to the Blue Lake and for the return. There is one thing I can't abide and that is people who are ill-prepared for a hike, mountain trip whatever. People who forget vital clothing, run out of food, rely on others for a rescue that they themselves could have so easily prevented. Digging deeper I found nothing only the empty bags of my walk-in supply. Panicking I emptied my rucksack. No food bag. My vocal reaction was lost to the deafening roar of the Sabine River that hurtled past beneath me. Idiot I muttered more audibly as I recalled trying to clear up my pannier explosion in the garage as I packed my bags for the trip. I must have packed my food supply into my pannier.

Unable to reach the Blue Lake hut due to the avalanche and realising it was folly with no food too, my other option was a hut across the raging river yet, as luck would have it the river had washed away the bridge! I stared at this torrent of water through the beech trees knowing I could not attempt a river crossing alone at this point so I reached for a few leaves, stuffed them in my pocket and dejectedly began to retrace my steps.

If you've ever wondered, chewing on beech tree leaves is, I imagine, similar to popping a hardened piece of chewing gum that you've had to chisel off a pavement outside of Tesco's into your mouth.

I was fortunate to meet 3 guys in a hut the following night who - trying hard to hide their 'what an idiot, shouldn't be allowed out in the hills' expressions - generously shared some couscous with me, yet were unable to spare any further food for my walk-out.  It was 2 days later that I reached the village of St Arnaud.

"Hey Jilly is steak and sausage and chips ok for you tonight" boomed Greg handing me a beer as I came out of the shower..

Oh go beech leaves any time...

Eternally grateful to the lovely Carter family!


  1. This story sounded familiar Jill. Was it published in the Adventure Cycling book? I bet you could have eaten a horse! Good on you! And fabulous pictures - superlative!