Queenstown, Makarora, Wanaka, and not Gillespie

Posted by Patrick Lam on Friday, April 2, 2021

Full gallery: https://gallery.patricklam.ca/index.php?/category/1300

So, we meant to do the Gillespie Pass Circuit including Crucible Lake. Instead, we did:

The planned logistics for the Gillespie trip were simple: rent a car from Queenstown, stay at the Wonderland Lodge in Makarora the night before, take a jetboat across the river, walk across the pass and to Crucible Lake, and take a jetboat back from Kerin Forks. The jetboat avoids the biggest river crossings across the Makarora. Ironically, the day before we were to go, we got a call saying that there wasn’t enough water to run the jetboat. That’s fine, it should be easy to cross the river in that case.

At Wonderland, accommodations aren’t actually in a lodge. They’re in cabins or chalets. The price is good and the Internet is fast (though it doesn’t reach the cabins; I had to hang out in the kitchen/communal area).

Wonderland Lodge cabin, Brewster Hut, tiny Jucy Snooze closet

I’d figured that things could happen on Gillespie, so that in addition to renting a PLB, I bought flexidate ZQN-WLG returns on Air New Zealand. Notably, when you get a flexidate, you can no-show the flight and still change it, paying the fare difference. Turns out this was foresighted (we didn’t no-show, but we needed to change flights). Also we had more gear than usual: bivy sack, ground pad. More weight, not my favourite.

(Pro-tip: if you want to change to the first flight out on a flexidate, you can change to the cheapest flight still available for today and then it becomes a free same-day confirmed change to the closest flight. Currently all flights are changeable for fare difference between days, but not same-day unless flexitime or flexidate.)

No Gillepsie

After taking the jetboat, we were going to go to Young Hut, then Siberia Hut for two nights, then out. But MP was feeling an oncoming cold and on day T-1 MetService was predicting 116mm of rain at Siberia Hut when we’d be walking across the pass to there (day T+1). And we wouldn’t be able to check weather updates once we got to Young on evening T+6h. DOC and Wilkins River Jets said that we could probably do it but it didn’t sound like much fun. So we cancelled. I hate cancelling. (Tip: if it’s a weather cancel, do it on the phone with DOC to get a full refund). We thought about pushing the Circuit back (by which time MP’s cold might go away) (it hasn’t, not fully) but then Easter was going to make things expensive and it would have started to push up against the next trip, originally scheduled for a week after returning from this one.

Wilderness Magazine does say: “You’ll want good weather to safely cross Gillespie Pass.”

Alas, I don’t think it rained after all. Even the morning that we were scheduled to depart, the rain forecast dropped to about 10mm for day 2. Maybe the views still wouldn’t have been great. I do wish I had brought more gear though (particularly climbing gear and better headphones). Fortunately at least I had my computer.

The Alternative

Since we weren’t on the Circuit, we stayed in the Wonderland restaurant for quite a bit the morning after to figure out the plan. Had a good venison pie. We actually started to set out for Lake Tekapo but I didn’t want an extra 3 hours in the car. There were surely more things to do around where we were already.

I figured we could first do river crossing practice across the Makarora River, which will ideally give MP more confidence about these. We had somewhat prepared by getting river shoes, which is a bit trickier off season. Indeed, part of our logistics upon landing in Queenstown was to call around and proceed directly to a Wanaka gear store, where we picked up some sandals just before they closed.

Before the river crossing, we also went to the Blue Pools, which are pretty.

Blue Pools and the Makarora as we would cross it

Having cancelled the Circuit, we then stayed an extra night at Wonderland (and I had enough time to record and upload my weekly video, whew; different scenery than usual).

Brewster and Rob Roy

We then did an out-and-back to Brewster Hut, leaving around 1pm. Before that, I worked on a paper with my student David in the morning, figuring that it was a short walk to the hut for the afternoon. Staying at Brewster Hut was easy: just needed to book online at the DOC site. We did the walk up in about 3 hours.

Alas, I regret not leaving earlier and visiting the glacier; the map showed that it was just 1.5km and not so much elevation from the hut, but we walked that way for 45 minutes and quit. It was hard to find good information about how far it was from the Intentions Book in the hut; lots of people said they’d went, but I had no clue how far it was. The Internet suggests 1.5 hours to the glacier, so we would have been pushing it for sunset. We had said we could try again the next morning, but the weather wasn’t favourable, as I feared. Mount Brewster would be a good introductory mountaineering objective, above the glacier, just shy of another 1000m up from the hut.

I was experimenting with the new superzoom and taking pictures of the waterfall of Brewster Glacier snowmelt when 3 keas flew over my head. I wasn’t quick enough to photograph them; I just got some blurry video.

Brewster Track. 1000m elevation gain in 2.5 km.

Once we were back off the mountain, I booked a night in Wanaka and a night in Queenstown.

Is it COVID?

The cough was a bit worrisome. So, after MP talked to Healthline and scheduled a COVID test in Wanaka at the local clinic, I changed the night in Queenstown for a second night in Wanaka so that we’d stay somewhat closer by. Staying in the same room wasn’t possible, but at least a place in the same town sounded better than changing towns.

With our extra time in Wanaka, I noticed that the Rob Roy Glacier Track (it’s an outdoors walk and not so crowded) had been fixed since last year, so that was another worthy walk. Only 400m elevation gain to look at a hanging glacier.

Rob Roy Glacier Walk; entertaining drive to Raspberry Flats with livestock.

Although the trips we did were short (25km total), there was still 1400m of elevation gain between them. About half of Gillespie’s distance and height. We’ll be back somehow. Probably next season.

After Rob Roy, we got back to Wanaka just before 9, stopping just in time for tacos at the truck in Wanaka, then went to our new room. We got a large room at the Fairway Motel in Wanaka, though the location wasn’t as good as at the Bella Vista from the night before, which was super central. Both nights in Wanaka were fine, really.

Black-backed gull and juvenile (MP); not #thatWanakaTree; emergency beer delivery; Queenstown

It’s challenging to figure out what the right thing to do for flying with a cold is during this era. Definitely flying while waiting for a COVID test result is not the right thing. The cold could well take a week to resolve, so we interpreted the instruction as “minimize interactions” at least. I conservatively changed the flight to Saturday, which was the cheapest day.

We were off to Queenstown the next morning, dropping off the bags, returning the car, and waiting for hotel check-in. Got into our closet of a room half an hour before announced check-in, ran lecture, and went out to supper.

Had another call on the Queenstown Bay Beach the next morning, during which MP got her test results by text. Yay! Having gotten the test result, we changed to the next available flight, took the bus to the airport, and got ourselves back to Wellington.