When it comes to hiking, I’m utterly spoiled in New Zealand. From short walks of a few hours to multi-day tramps, there’s plenty of choice, and I’m a particular fan of getting in amongst, or up on top of, the many peaks of the Southern Alps. The west coast road that spans between Christchurch and Kumara Junction has offered me some incredible hikes, but one that had eluded me until last October was the walk up Otira Valley in Arthur’s Pass National Park. The marked trail looks quite short on the map, so to make the over 90 min drive from home worthwhile, I decided to combine it with a few nearby tracks. Parking up at the bottom of the Temple Basin track, I passed the bottom of that walk to cross the road to join the nature walk that lead onto the Lake Misery track.
Despite the proximity to the state highway with its regular traffic noise, the surrounding peaks seemed to pull my mind away from the noises of civilisation and frankly I was surrounded by a stunning landscape that was difficult to ignore. There were a few other people on the nature trail that had walked from Arthur’s Pass village but as I continued on to the lake, I felt more and more on my own. Looking back across the road as the trail gained a bit of height, I could see a great waterfall spilling down the opposite mountainside, and the zig-zagging Temple Basin track headed up the slope at its side. According to the Department of Conservation (DOC) website, the boardwalk that passes Lake Misery can be under water. It was such a gorgeous sunny day, that even though there had recently been rain, I was hopeful that there wouldn’t be any issues here, and thankfully the walkway was high and dry. At the far side of the lake, there was a large rock wall to climb up and over and now I was at the end of the Otira Valley look up at distant snowy peaks.
The track is poled but is also well-worn and easy to follow as it skirts the slope of the rock wall I’d climbed over to get there. The alpine vegetation was coming to life in spring, and below me the babbling waters of the lower Otira River accompanied me as I cut up the valley. A few places were rougher than others, including a few spots where the track had collapsed a little creating the occasional steep drop down, but otherwise it was a decent meander to reach the little wooden bridge that leads to the far side of the river. A DOC sign here marks it as the end of the track, the upper reaches of the valley deemed fit for mountaineers only. Everyone else on the trail with me turned back at this point, and I scrambled up onto the bridge to cross it and sit on the other side. It was such a lovely day, I was happy to just watch the running water for a while. But as I looked up the valley, I could make out a well-trodden path and far in the distance I could see a couple of people following it. It really hadn’t taken me that long to reach this point, and with time on my side and a blue sky above, it seemed like a good idea to keep going. And boy am I glad I did.
Following the path of the river for the most part, it hugged the slope as it headed upstream. Behind me, the road seemed so far away and the peaks of Mt Temple dominated the background. As the track hit a wide section of scree, the still-obvious track followed the natural curve of the valley and the road disappeared out of view and the incredible peaks of Mt Rolleston appeared. Cutting down towards the river, a series of small waterfalls created a stunning foreground to the view. It was hard not to get a little giddy with it all and it was also hard not to want to keep going. Despite clearly being in an avalanche zone, there wasn’t enough snow to be concerned, and I decided I’d just keep walking until the track stopped. Despite the lack of poles, it was well worn and therefore easy to pick a route past large boulders that littered the river side.
A myriad of waterfalls streamed down the steep wall of rock to my left and in front of me a basin became visible, surrounded by steep snowy peaks. I saw the pair far ahead of me trudging towards the snow, and after reaching the end of a flat area strewn with boulders, I found a spot to sit down and have lunch. As I ate, I was privy to the sight of several small avalanches skipping down the mountainside. The sight and the sounds were as incredible as each other, the basin causing the sound to magnify. Not far ahead, the track appeared to fade, but from my vantage point, I watched the pair cross a section of snow and clamber up another rock field to reach the true basin, and I watched in awe as they sat for a while, the avalanches coming down right in front of them.
I sat so long there that they headed back whilst I was still ogling at the view. When they reached me, one of them stopped for a brief chat, congratulating me for being out on my own. I’m never sure if it’s because I’m female or hiking solo (or the fact that I’m both female and hiking solo) that seems worthy of congratulating me for but these are the occasions where the male dominance of the hiking world becomes clear. I’ve taken my freedom for granted all my life, and thought nothing of taking myself up mountains on my own or heading off with a tent on my own, but every now and again I’m reminded of how I’m in a minority. But this man encouraged me to head up to where they had been before leaving me alone, and as I watched them disappear down river, I looked up at the beautiful white snow and decided I’d go the extra distance.
Thanks to their footprints, I could pick a route across a wide bank of snow, a couple of times dropping deeper down into the snow than anticipated. But once I was at the other side, I was greeted by a large boulder pile that I picked my way up to find myself staring at the backside of Mt Rolleston. The whole time I was there I was nervous. I hadn’t seen a single avalanche reach this far whilst I’d been sitting having lunch, but all around me were signs of recent avalanches and I was acutely aware of the fact that no-one knew I was there. Whilst I love hiking solo, it does make me heavily responsible for my own safety and at the mercy of my ability to make rational judgements. But the whole time I stood there, the nervousness was mingled with the thrill of the view in front of me, and the excitement and rush of having it all to myself.
This is definitely the kind of place that would be totally different to hike on another occasion: the view and risk changeable with the season and the snow level. Spring was a great time to be there, with the flowering alpine plants, the sunshine in the sky but the snow still present in the higher reaches. I cut back down the boulder field to the snow bank I’d crossed earlier, trying a different route to avoid the dips I’d fallen into on the way up. The view was just as phenomenal on the way back as it had been on the way there, and it was hard not to keep looking backwards as the basin grew further away and then disappeared out of sight as the valley curved back towards the road.
There was not a soul to be seen as I made my way back down the valley towards the little wooden bridge. A couple of people were on the marked trail as I continued back towards the road, crossing a lower scree field before reaching the turnoff to Lake Misery. Even with the road and power poles cutting across the landscape, there was no escaping the beauty of this place and it was a pleasure to retrace my steps past the lake and towards the nature trail. Only the cold of the shaded trail on the way back to my car reminded me that it wasn’t quite summer yet, but I was elated to have finally walked this track, and I was equally glad I’d had the guts to keep going up the valley. The Otira Valley track is now officially an Arthur’s Pass favourite.