June 25, 2016

The Grand Walkabout: Exploring New Zealand

Forest Woodward reflects on his epic journey through the South Island of New Zealand with Graham Zimmerman. Read more about their Grand Walkabout.

According to family legend passed down from my parents and older sister, I first traveled to the South Island of New Zealand at the ripe age of 2.

I say “family legend” because I have little or no recollection of this trip.

As legend has it, my family spent three months biking through the rolling hills and pastoral countryside. Over the course of those three months, I supposedly snacked on raisins, spent hours staring out the window of the two-wheeled “child cart” that Dad pulled behind his bike, and ended up with the nickname “Borris” thanks to an elderly lady who befriended me.

The rest of the trip, however, remains shrouded in mystery, and I have often dreamed of returning to those enchanted places.

As luck would have it (with the aid of some focused dreaming), just such an opportunity was headed my way.

climber on side of mountain

In the spring of 2015, I received an invitation from friend and mountain man extraordinaire Graham Zimmerman to return to his home turf of New Zealand for a climbing trip that would also include Kyle Dempster and Jewell Lund.

“In a single day you might swim in the emerald waters of the Tasman sea, hike through prehistoric-feeling jungles, get lost in an ice cave and explore some of the wildest mountains in the Ring of Fire,” Graham (who was born in New Zealand and later returned there for his university years) explained to me.

During his university years, Graham had climbed extensively on the South Island, exploring the nuances and beauty of a land whose weather changes as quickly as her geography. Blue skies quickly swirl into massive storms that blow in off the South Pacific. Shimmering blue glaciers rise up out of jungles where dense green blankets run up to the edge of the white sand beaches. And above it all, the mountains beckons. My obvious reply to his invitation to join on the trip was “**** Yes!”

What Graham failed to mention was the relentless rain.

Climbing Mt. Aspiring

Graham Zimmerman and Kyle Dempster descending the wet slabs that guard the approach to Mt Aspiring in the Southern Alps of New Zealand

Arriving in Christchurch, Graham and I quickly abandoned our hopes of renting a swank and highly ‘Instagramable’ retro van. Instead, we crammed our bags of climbing gear into an uncomfortably tight minivan before we picked up Kyle and Jewell at the airport, crammed their stuff in with ours, and headed for the Southern Alps.

Arriving in the quaint lakeside town of Wanaka (the last jumping off point for excursions into the Southern Alps and the Matukituki Valley) we were greeted by some of the best ice cream I have ever had the pleasure of jamming into my mouth.

Unfortunately, at the same time we got some bad news. The helicopter scheduled to fly us to the base of our first climbing objective (Mount Aspiring) was grounded thanks to the intermittent, but troublesome storms rolling in off the Tasman.

After another round of ice cream, my blood sugar and morale simultaneously spiking, I cast my vote with the rest of the crew. We were going to do the approach to Mount Aspiring on foot, weather be damned.

Climbers in New Zealand

Over the course of the next three days, we would ascend some 9,000 feet, through meadows, jungles, river crossings, scree fields, glaciers, and ridge lines, eventually gaining the summit of Mount Aspiring and enjoying a rare moment of sunlight.

After a brief moment on the apex, we turned and began the long descent; the ice cream back in Wanaka beckoned as we pushed into the thick of the weather rolling in off the Tasman Sea.

The 36 hours and 30-plus kilometers that followed were some of the wettest and wildest of walking (or “tramping” as the locals call it) conditions I have ever had the displeasure of encountering, often times leaving me feeling as if I was once again toddling around like a 2-year-old, wishing for an extra box or two of raisins from Mom’s stash.

mountaineer in snow

With our mountain mission soggily, but safely completed, we slogged back into Wanaka for a solid day where we would dry our gear and focus on completing our secondary mission—sampling all the ice cream flavors at our new favorite shop.

Over the course of the next 10 days we would climb numerous rocky formations, accidentally flatten a medley of invasive rodent species beneath the tires of our minivan, sample as many local dairy delicacies as possible, visit with some incredibly kind and generous locals, and snap about 10,990 more photos than anyone will ever see.

In rare moments, when I set aside the camera and watched as the clouds lifted and revealed glimpses of the magical landscape through which we were moving, I found myself deeply grateful for the first taste of this wild land that my parents gave me at a young age, and equally grateful to return here as an adult to experience my own misadventures.

Mt. Aspiring with snow and two climbers

In the end, much like our family trip of 27 years ago, this trip too will fade in clarity, but the important memories will remain, passed on from one friend or family member to another, someday no doubt inspiring another rowdy toddler excursion or ice cream parlor tour of one of the most beautiful and hospitable countries in the world.

Watch the awesome video the team made during their journey below!

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