Is it too much if I start with that this was one of my favourite weekends of 2020? Nope, you know why? Because that’s the kind of energy that the end of 2020 needs right now.
My husband and I love a good adventure. Near, far, fly, or driving distance, you name it, we are down for it. So when we had the opportunity to visit somewhere completely new, our bags were packed before I even hit send on the email.
Who knew that just a short two-hour drive away from our home in Queenstown would land us in the middle of an unexplored paradise. Makarora, heading up the west coast of New Zealand and just up the road from Lake Wanaka. The Blue Pools are perhaps why most people stop here and we too are guilty of speeding straight through the quaint little hamlet of Makarora, taking the bush walk, and heading off up the West Coast… But now that I have your attention (and I'm quite clearly here to talk about Makarora), let me fill you in on more details from this epic wonderland, ready to be explored.
We packed up the car, overnight bag, hiking boots, day packs, and a camera bag. I also packed the snacks, of course, and some extra food because I didn’t exactly know what we would need. A trip over the hill is always such a treat. Wanaka is an absolute vibe, we love it. The slow pace of living, the beautiful views, and the small town always provide the goods. We stopped in at a few of our local faves on the way.
Then on the road to Makarora. We arrived just after lunch and the clouds hugged the mountains in front of us. We pulled up to the Wild Earth Lodge and Pete, our host along with Cash, his dog, greeted us on the doorstep of the cottage. Any welcome that starts with a dog is a great welcome. We walked into an architectural built paradise. The cottage equipped with everything you could possibly need, plus luxury extras that got us both very excited. Pete and his wife Janine bid us a fond farewell and left us to enjoy their property in private for the whole evening.
We made time to drive up to the Blue Pools for a stroll. Now, if you have never visited, you won't know the difference but the car park has moved. I was very confused the whole time. Maybe they have some new blue pools? Maybe the walk has changed, maybe… Robbie quickly suggested I just enjoy the walk and stop thinking about every possible outcome to the question I had no answer for, that was until I reached the original Blue Pools and I concluded that they moved the car park for safety as the Blue Pools are a very popular tourist spot in the South Island.
Breathe. It is magic, the water, the swing bridges, and the landscape just looking all beautiful around you. We hung around until the sandflies bid us a farewell and walked back through the newly built bushwalk. Tuis, bellbirds and more led us back to the car park.
Back at the lodge and the clouds had lifted. We could see straight down the Wilkin Valley and, my oh my, what a sight. After grabbing some beers and take away hot chips (standard after any bout of outdoor activity) we ran a bath. Oh, I forgot to mention the cottage at the Wild Earth Lodge has an outdoor tub that runs hot and cold water. The view, straight down the valley, the privacy, and the sunset, well, a girl couldn’t ask for more really. I honestly have never felt this relaxed. I drank tea from a brewed teapot, watched the sun go down, and relaxed into the plush nature of this eco-lodge, that until today I had no idea existed.
I chose not to draw the curtains that night, the stars through the bedroom window were so pretty I didn’t want to block them out and there is something so magical about rising with the sun. 6.30 am on the dot, my eyes opened and the kettle was calling my name. One-pot of loose leaf black tea for me, one pot of freshly ground coffee for Robbie. We sat in bed, watched the lambs race around the field, and planned for the day's adventure.
After a hearty breakfast of fresh eggs, avocado, and the most delicious homemade muesli and yogurt I packed the days bags as full to the brim with snacks and sandwiches, filled up our water bottles, and off we went to the Wilkin River Jets office, just a short five-minute drive from the lodge.
We arrived at the office, checked in, and met the helicopter pilot. He advised us of potential routes due to the wind levels in the valley and into the helicopter we went. Robbie had never flown in a small heli before so it was a real treat for him. We took to the skies, my absolute favourite thing to do. Nothing gives you an extreme perspective of this incredible land than when flying over untouched valleys, glacial lakes, and towering peaks. Mount Aspiring National Park really has it all and I am kicking myself for not exploring earlier.
We flew over Makarora, up the Wilkin River, and landed on top of a mountain somewhere high in the national park. After a quick photo stop and 'pinch me' moment we hopped back in the heli. Our pilot, sensing our love for adventure and stoke for being immersed in the backcountry, took off in a somewhat 'James Bond' style and swept us through mountain ranges, past peaks, and over some of the most beautiful valleys I have ever laid eyes on. A highlight: flying over Lake Crucible - don’t worry I will be back to tackle you! - the lake peppered with icebergs and leading us down to our destination.
Siberia Valley. Remote, spectacular, and breathtaking are but a few words I have for this part of Aotearoa. We landed, jumped out of the heli, and listened to directional instructions from Blair before he hopped back into his machine and left us in the middle of this backcountry paradise. We had a three-hour walk ahead of us to meet up with our jet boat ride on the other side. I honestly felt like I had been dropped in the middle of a movie set. This remote alpine valley was truly incredible and I just spent the whole time shooting, walking, and in awe of what we have on our doorstep here in New Zealand. We began walking across the tussock flats, in fear of having to run the last part of the track due to my prolonged photo stops.
For just over half an hour we walked through the valley, the river running beside us, the mountains leading our way. It felt so great to be exploring the remote backcountry with the comfort of just our day bags thanks to the transfers on either end. From the alpine flats to the native bush, with sneak peeks of the mountains and waterfalls coming at us through breaks in the tree’s. The walk is relatively easy. A short half an hour incline leads you to this exposed bluff and views back down into the valley. Wow, I am honestly lost for words at how beautiful this place is.
We reached the ‘peak’ of the hike and the downhill welcomed us home. For just over an hour we walked through the bush, surrounded by native tree’s fern forests and the birds. Oh my, the bird song. We heard Bell Birds, Tuis, and even a faint Kea squark from above.
The track is clearly marked with orange markers and you travel south down the valley. We stopped for lunch under the canopy of the trees, Robbie opting for a sun-drenched patch while I hid from the rays in the shade and made our way through the mountain of snacks we packed.
The track flattened out and we entered the Wilkin Valley. We had some avid multi-day hikers hot on our tails, also heading for the jetboat pickup after their extended stay in Siberia. We sat and waited before hearing our pick up arriving from downstream. Hayden, our driver was here. With a quick exchange of backpacks for life jackets, we jumped in the boat. Now, I have been on my fair share of jetboat rides here in New Zealand and this one takes the cake. What a ride. We sped up the icy blue waters of the Wilkin and Makaroa Rivers stopping now and again for snippets of information from our very knowledgeable driver. It was awesome, so, so awesome!
Forty minutes later we landed at the base. Reluctantly, I stepped off the jet boat, into the van, and back into my car. How about that for door to door service?! I didn’t want to leave, I honestly could have hopped straight back on the boat and spent days getting lost in the backcountry.
Alas, Monday morning was calling and those emails won't answer themselves. Cut to me Googling the Gillespie Pass and planning our next escape into Mount Aspiring National Park.
Thank you Lake Wanaka Tourism, Wild Earth Lodge and Wilkin River Jets for bringing this slice of paradise to our attention and letting us experience what has been one of our favourite adventures to date!