Updated: Sep 27, 2018
Like everything I see or read that ignites my adventurous spirit, it has a brief moment at the top of the list until a new fascination bumps it down a notch. So ever since an article on ski touring Mt Sibbald by Mark Bridgewater entered my inbox over two years ago, I was captivated by the Macaulay Valley at the top of Lake Tekapo. Maybe it was the EPIC image of Mark’s adventure buddy lying in an old bath (Say Yes to Adventure cover Volume Three), with a Speights and the stars as company. Maybe it was the contrast of blue and gold that filled the surrounding landscape; or maybe it was the remoteness of the location, enveloped by towering mountains dotted with glaciers that glistened in the sunshine. Whatever it was, I knew I had to one day explore it for myself.
Roll on a few years, many adventure and another special occasion to celebrate. The original plan for the weekend was to head south and hit up the Cardrona Mountain Bike Park, but with some fresh February snow and a downhill event on, we decided another mission had to be thought of. With my friend Jacqs based in Hawea and myself in Christchurch, meeting in the middle was the sensible option. After a quick search on uncle Google for adventures based around the Mackenzie region, we landed on the Macaulay Valley, and the decision was made.
Putting a call out at late notice we gained one more buddy in Scottie Scott, and planned our mission leaving mid-Saturday morning and out the following day. With bikes, booze and quality banter (debateable) we headed for Tekapo after work on Friday, excited for the weekend.
I’d explored the Godley Valley around Lilybank Station once before – when all this adventure madness truly began. I was on a training mission with Jacqs and Hilary as we prepared for Spring Challenge in Queenstown. I was on a bike that was too big for me, I definitely hadn't taken the plunge to clip-ins yet, and I thought pink buns were quality energy food (who am I kidding, I still think that!). We fell off copious amounts of times – in the river, into banks, onto rocks, and occasionally for no reason at all! It would also be my first ever image on Instagram! So what I am trying to say is, it's was bloody ages ago.
Pulling up we sorted out our bikes and with our bags now looking more akin to a Christmas tree, we hardly resembled a group who were about to go riding (or I believe ‘bikepacking’ is the fashionable term to use these days). We are by no means experts in this sport – we proudly wear lycra (Say Yes to Adventure no less) when the rules dictate we should be wearing ‘baggies’, but we don’t care at all. And that’s the joy of it, the laughter that comes from the ridiculousness of the situation, but also the exciting anticipation of what lies ahead.
Taking off just after 11am, we successfully navigated the Macaulay river (under the watchful eye of a local farmer in his tractor) before turning right just before Lilybank Station and heading north up the valley. The weather was on pointe with only blue and sunshine now filling the sky, following on from cyclone Gita; her presence still very much noticeable with the surrounding mountains still covered in a fresh dusting of snow.
On private farmland, the 4WD track guided us through the odd stream, most of which were rideable. There was one moment when Jacqs almost gave Danny MacAskill a run for his money, slowly sinking into the muddy, stagnant water much to the amusement of Scottie and me! We stopped for lunch as we reached the beginning of the Te Kahui Kaupeka Conservation Park, directly opposite Stone Hut, sitting in silence as we watched waterfalls in the distance and soaked in the vastness of the landscape around us.
As the riverbed widened and the track became less obvious, we bounced and bobbled our way over the rocks beneath our wheels. The slight gradual incline, along with the uneven ground made for slow going, but when you haven’t a care in the world, time doesn’t mean a thing.
We spotted the hut on the flats ahead and arrived just under three hours after setting off. The recent weather bomb appeared to have put people off, and we couldn't believe our luck when we had the hut all to ourselves. And what a hut it was! Owned and managed by Mackenzie Alpine Trust - Lake Tekapo, it had everything we needed. Gas, solar lights, an epic fire, 14 decent-sized bunk beds, and most importantly, plenty of cards! You can’t book in advance, so it’s first-in-first-served ($10 per person, per night), but if you brought a 4WD vehicle in, there is plenty of flat land around to pitch a tent.
After initially exploring our home for the evening, and changing out of wet clothes, we headed up the hill behind us to get a better sense of the valley we found ourselves a part of. As to be expected, the views were breath-taking – 360 degrees of epicness. We couldn’t quite spot Mount Sibbald, but all agreed that exploring any of these mountain ranges definitely wasn’t for the faint-hearted.
I had one question that still wasn't answered, however … where was the bath?? My memory of the image told me that it would have been near the hut, as the landscape behind looked up the valley. A scan from up the hill hadn't located it, so once back down we did some searching and quickly came across the location. For whatever reason, the bath was no more, and the only evidence left was some rocks, which would have been for the fire underneath, and a black alkathene pipe which snaked its way back to the stream running down the valley. I was intrigued, and a little saddened as to why this point of difference to the hut no longer existed.
"Is it too early to open the wine?" Scottie asked as I looked at my watch. 3.45pm. "It's never too early for wine", Jacqs and I replied in unison. And so we sat in the sunshine, drinking wine, throwing rocks and chewing the fat, feeling so lucky that we live in a country where places like this are literally on our doorstep.
Roll on 6pm, the bottle of wine well and truly empty and only the last of the port left in our glasses when we spotted a vehicle slowly snaking its way up the riverbed. Taking bets on the travellers inside, we were met by a young couple from Christchurch who were also escaping the rat race for a night. Armed with Cliff the dog, a rifle and camo clothing they quickly set off for an evening hunt before the sun dropped behind the hill. Their hastiness to disappear may have also been a direct result of our singing…
With a gourmet dinner of tuna and rice in our bellies, we sat around the table playing Kings and Assholes. After a few questionable rule-changes partway through, along with plenty of laughs, we called it a day just after 9pm. With the forecast nor’west now howling down the valley, we hopped into bed hoping the rain would hold off until at least lunchtime tomorrow.
After a sleepless night for a few (the wind is my idea of heaven), an early start had us fed and ready for the return trip just before 8am. While the rain stayed away, the black clouds rolling over the Alps up the valley were enough to hurry us on our way. With lighter loads, due to both the food and alcohol being consumed and our sleeping bags kindly offloaded to our new friends, who promised to drop them at our car, we hopped back in the saddle and almost freewheeled our way down the valley.
With the wind on our tail and the gradient now in our favour, we clocked up the kms as we headed for home. With the sky not quite as picture-perfect as it was the day before, it was still warm enough for only a long-sleeve merino. Reaching the signpost for Lilybank Station, we made our final turn towards the car. With our river crossing confidence up, we attempted (still need a bit of work) almost every crossing before a final sprint up the last hill.
Our toes might have been numb from the icy rivers, but you could not wipe the smiles off our faces. The wilderness fills my soul as nothing else can. Add to that great friends, and I couldn't have asked for a better way to spend the weekend celebrating another year around the sun.