Christmas on the South Island: Gillepsie, Mueller Hut, glacier kayaking, and rock climbing

Posted by Patrick Lam on Friday, January 20, 2023

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This was our big Christmas trip for 2022. In the Before Times we had often fled Waterloo for Christmas. Last year I couldn’t re-enter New Zealand. This year, we’d go to the South Island and get in some hiking and other outdoors adventures; in December 2020 we had had a good South Island trip too, though it was Great Walks and Dunedin.

A long time ago, we had gone to the UK for Christmas and MP missed her parents, so after that we’d gone to Montreal for Christmas Day and then to somewhere else (eg Red Rocks). I was not keen to go to North America any earlier than I had to, and was looking forward to as much Southern Hemisphere summer as possible. In any case, MP’s dad had recently visited, which helped too.

After scrambling to finish work before the trip, it was off to the South Island. Wellington Airport wasn’t too crowded, but Queenstown airport was! Wow. So many people. In retrospect, Queenstown and Wanaka are challenging to visit over Christmas, because apparently every other New Zealander and also now people from other countries are also trying to go there. Might be better to try for cities if in New Zealand.

WLG (moderately busy) and ZQN (packed)


We managed to find a reasonably pricey, but not extortionate, car rental in Wanaka, at $60/day. Finding a reasonably priced car was hard in Wanaka and impossible in Queenstown. So, we took a shuttle to Wanaka. We were supposed to take the shuttle at 4pm from central Queenstown. But the 12:45 city bus didn’t show up (not enough bus drivers anywhere). So I changed to the 2:30 shuttle to Wanaka. I think that departure was added after we booked. Also changed: the price, by $15pp. If I hadn’t changed the time maybe I could have complained about the price change. But it’s not like anyone was answering the phone on the weekend (they did answer during the week later). At least the web form for changing the time worked.

About the shuttle: 1) guy next to us was from Canada (there was an accent, and he was reading news on CTV, but I never asked him) 2) air quality was terrible with 3700ppm.

There is a new boardwalk in Wanaka, opened November 2021. It provides good views of two dozen grebes, who are currently nesting (babies as we were on our way out). The boardwalk was on the way to Wanaka Bakpaka, which is a convenient place to stay; very clean.

Grebe mating time; grebe housing crisis; nesting instinct; starling, with pollen on head; scaupling.

We had excellent tacos at Amigos. Some normal things like carnitas, pork belly, and fish; also some more creative ones like duck, fried chicken, and a caesar salad (!) taco.

Also tasty breakfast at Big Fig, multiple times. We didn’t happen to go for dinner. We went to the food truck hub once, where I had a quite good sashimi rice bowl from Aki Sushi Wanaka. Legit for sure. Rice was sufficiently vinegary, and they somehow have a supply chain for fish beyond just salmon and chicken (which is not a fish).

Gillespie Circuit

The primary objective of our trip was the Gillespie Circuit, which we’d already tried in March 2021 and been rained out on. It’s definitely harder than a Great Walk; day 2 has 800m elevation gain and more challenging terrain (i.e. not a Great Walks sidewalk). Turns out that the demographic on the Circuit is more hardcore than on a Great Walk, and people were also doing the other more difficult hikes. I should collect a list of hard hikes that I’d like to do.

There was the hardcore guy from the real Alps who came on the boat with us (and his girlfriend) and then quickly disappeared into the wilderness after some fast hiking and some fishing; the Australian plodder (who actually walked fast); the woman immigrating to Canada from France but here in New Zealand for now; the Quebec CEGEP teacher; the couple of software engineers from the Bay Area; and others. Good crowd.

The first day was surprisingly hard even though there was only 400m of elevation gain. The first bit was a sidewalk (with lots of moss) and then the terrain got hard and our speed dropped to like 2km/h.

Mossy; magpie moths mating; Young River; me.

The second day was in some sense easier: twice as much elevation gain (and almost as much loss), but the terrain was easier. The views were better than those on the Milford Track, but it’s a harder hike.

Cirque; ridge; peak; valley; snowy; Siberia stream.

Then we went up to Crucible Lake on the third day, which had a bunch of flat walking through a valley and then up to the lake, including root climbing. The last day is short and easy; we went swimming in the river, and there were terns.

Across the valley; Crucible Lake; verdant valley; reflections in Crucible Lake; falls by Siberia Hut.

Birds on day 2: 4 kea, 2 paradise shelduck, 3 rock wren, 4 fantails (?).

Pack weight: plam 10.9kg at start, 7.4 at end; MP 10.0 at start, 8.4 at end.

I think Crucible Lake is as impressive as anything I’ve seen in Canada. Well, it’s a lake with lots of ice on it.

Mount Cook Village

We went back and did more things that we couldn’t last time. We’d previously tried to do kayaking in Tasman Lake with the icebergs, but that hadn’t worked out because they had all been jammed in the corner. We managed to go out on Christmas Eve this year with our guide Jan from the Czech Republic. Like many others, he’d also spent a bunch of time doing adventure activities in Western Canada. There were a bunch of terns, but I didn’t have the appropriate lens for that.

plam, mp, and iceberg; ice detail; Aoraki; looking through the ice; ducklings and iceberg.

Also I was hoping to use the good lens to take a picture of the rare black stilt. All I got to do was cross streams up to my waist and take pictures of herons, South Island pied oystercatchers, and dotterels.

Heron; dotterel; moody Mount Cook.

On Christmas Day we walked up to Mueller Hut on the Mueller Hut Route. There is a full 1000m of elevation gain to Mueller, but the first half is stairs. The second half isn’t that hard either, except that walking on wet snow at the end gets your feet wet. We also went up an additional 100m to Mount Ollivier.

Clouds: not promising; the Hermitage dominates Mount Cook Village; plam and MP; some sun on Hooker Lake; Mueller Hut in sight.

Mueller Hut has been described as the highest backpackers in New Zealand, but Eddie the volunteer hut warden did a great job of managing the people at the hut, with varied experience levels.

Hooker Lake; the hut; emergency toilets; walking on the snow in shorts; Aoraki with clearing clouds; Aoraki with no clouds; inside the hut; golden hour Aoraki.

I didn’t manage to get a bunk, so I brought a bivvy sack and camped out. Was good for exploring night photography. I actually took pictures for 2 hours and got the Milky Way. Also learned a bit about how to do astrophotography (gotta turn off the AF light).

Camping at Mueller Hut; hut at night; early night picture; with nebulas; headlamp walking around.

While we weren’t up at Mueller we stayed at the NZAC Unwin Lodge, which is nice and also cheap for NZAC members at $20/night/person.

Wanaka climbing

I love living in Wellington, but the roped climbing easily accessible from there is, as they say in NZ, very average (i.e. poor). So I haven’t actually been climbing much in the last 2 years. MP did agree to 3 days of climbing at Wanaka this time though. We went to Far Side twice. When I met up with Elliott a few days later he remembered that we’d already been there in 2020; I’d forgotten. Anyway I got up a few things and worked some others. Wanaka is all schist and Far Side has some good angles, which is never what I’m naturally skilled at. MP either. Actually she really didn’t like the more overhanging routes.

Then on the last day I thought some slab might be in order. It’s much closer to my wheelhouse and at Diamond Slab I onsighted a couple of 19s (5.10as) which I of course should be able to do. MP liked it too. We had seen barely anyone at the Far Side and there was definitely a crew out at the slab.

Eeyore's Crack?; Girl Trouble; someone climbing at Diamond Slab.

Going home early

Not That Wanaka Tree; grebes with a stick; Frankton; Aoraki piercing the clouds.

I wrote a whole other post about it.

We did manage to see some baby grebes catching a ride with their parents as we were leaving!

Parent grebe and baby.