As autumn starts to hit and temperature drops in Sydney, the smell of wood fires hits the cool damp air in my hometown of Stanwell Park. I often feel a calling to get into the mountains and ‘do something’, anything - I just need to get away on a mission. I left the military a few years ago where I was on a constant cycle of innovate, plan, prepare, execute, assess and repeat. Missions. Be it an overseas complex Special Operation or a simple days training on a gun range I was always planning and executing - it was my purpose and I thrived on it.
Since leaving the military each year I feel the need for a ‘Mission’ and hitting NZ for an early winter adventure has been my mission for the past four or five years (except 2020 but who did do anything that year!)
This year as that yearning hit me, almost by divine intervention, I received a blunt, short text from my mate from Auckland, Seth, “23-29 May, Canterbury, Red Deer with Dave (Kiwi Dave) - are you in?’. A quick chat with my wife, Alli, a glance at the calendar and yes was my answer. I was now on a mission.
Like getting a band back together from the 80’s, I sent the dates to my good mate Hamish from Tegere Outdoors down in Melbourne who almost instantly replied with a yes. The team was assembled, two Kiwi’s, two Aussies and week of non stop laughs was in the making
Flights booked, locations decided on and we were off. Having a couple of Kiwis with you makes it easy as they could arrange the loan of a car, had local knowledge of where we were heading and know all the good pie shops on every possible route around NZ. A few days out the car we were borrowing also ended up with a driver, Sam, and our four had turned to five. Sam proved to be a vital member of our team when it came to carrying heavy things and setting up camp. This man, armed only with a pruning saw and a massive heart is a wood cutting, pack humping, and campsite clearing machine with size 13 boots out front and he carved a nice path through the snow too!
Every mission needs a purpose, method and end state. This trip was no different,
Purpose: To validate the UL6T on a multi day hike with a large group and evaluate our range of food and nutrition.
Method: Conduct a long hike into a river system and an alpine traverse with 4-5 people living out of the UL6T and consuming mainly food from our range of Radix, Clifbar, and Atlas Wild.
Endstate: The UL6T can be considered as a viable option for hiking in cold conditions and our range of nutrition can be refined and curated into high performance, ultralight, prepared meal packages.
Every year on the first and last day I have stopped at the North South Holiday Park, about five minutes from the airport. It is a great spot to spread your kit out, make last minute changes and meet up with the Kiwi crew. Hamish I got in rather late on a Sunday night so we crashed out and were soon awoken to Seth, Dave and Sam out the front of our cabin early the next morning. A quick reshuffle of kit, excess kit stored for us but the ever helpful staff for the park and we were off to get our food. I had arranged through our good friends at Radix Nutrition for five days of food to be picked up from a courier. As a stockist of Radix for some time now we were really keen to test out the new Ultra 800 V8 range of plant based meals for this week as well as a selection of post workout smoothies. I bought with me a big box of Clifbar, Atlas Wild and Original Beef Chief Jerky to hand out for testing amongst the team too. A huge hit was the Noble Vegan Jerky which was eaten on the first day. Seth secured the entire South Islands supply of double stuffed Oreos which seemed to be never ending every time we sat down for a snack. With the car full, Radix meals were stuffed loose into every square centimetre of space and spilled out every time a door was opened.
A quick stop for a pie out of Christchurch, a Toyota Hiace with blacked out windows and 'Calendar Girls’ branded down the side we thought we were about to be having breakfast with Christchurch’s finest young ladies - turned out to be what I’d guess as 600kg of human divided into four big lads, the bouncers I assume, looking for an early morning pie (or six). A coffee, pie and some last minute service station sunnies that made those who partook look like the class from Top Gun; and we were off to the trailhead to get on our way into the wilderness.
The walk in
The public land access and use in NZ is amazing. It is as it should be. Public land for public use - not the locked gate culture we have in Australia where the ‘conservation’ of land for mining companies and miss managed water boards that seem to hide away the attention of what is really happening on our land. Hikers, hunters, fisherman, farmers and everyday people use the land in harmony without the need for complex booking systems, tickets, or demonisation of one group from the other. Right of access through private or leased land is available. There are no bins, no litter and the tracks are well marked, maintained and the network of huts is amazing. The strong culture of custodianship by all Kiwis ensures that their public land remains to be used but the public.
The first part of our walk is an impressive wire swing bridge that you see dotted across NZ - this was a false sense of security and led us to believe that dry feet might be possible for our first night. Wrong. We got to the first river crossing within about 800 metres of the car park which fired off a debate on ‘why do we need to cross here’ and ‘surely there is another way’. I have seen the toughest of men in the most death defying moments refuse to get their feet wet. This trip proved to be no different as the debate raged on and eventually we conceded to make ‘just one crossing’. It didn’t matter anyway. Some 8 km and 20-30 river crossing later and after filling our water bladders, we started out near vertical ascent up a spur line in search of our first night's camp.
We found a flat spot in the saddle at about 750m ASL and started to set up camp. Almost without speaking a word the team (most of whom had just met for the first time six hours earlier) split up and got to task. Firewood was collected and the UL6T was pitched. Within 20 minutes we're inside, fire cranking as we watch the sunset through the open doors of the tipi. Some light catabolic winds stirred the air and flapped the sides of the tipi and as darkness fell so too did the temperature and the wind. That silent, cold, still air was like medicine as you sucked it in and the smell of smoke from the fire just reminded me of all the reasons we were here.
We settled in for the night eating, making a quick mountain cocktail, and spreading out our kit to sleep. We left our packs outside only dragging in our sleep system and a packing cell or two of food and layers. There was plenty of room to sleep and store equipment and firewood so we could lock down for the night and enjoy the strange comfort of being warm on a mountain in late May.
Waking up to a frosty morning, with Hamish keeping the fire going all night (it became his mission) coffee was made and we were off. Glassing the hills in the early morning light for any indications that this valley held red deer. Now for those who are shocked that we were looking for and hunting deer, don’t be, If you casually wrap your hands around a burger or enjoy a roast - you and I are no different. If you are a vegan there is also a high chance we hold the same values. In fact, my wife, Alli, and I met and bonded as we were aligned with the same values against the mass animal agriculture industry and the environmental carnage it is causing to our planet. Although she disagrees with hunting, we agree to disagree and accept each other and I mostly do what I’m told.
Red Deer are an introduced species into NZ but also hold significant cultural and historical significance and when the population soars, the damage to the environment also increases and the Department OF Conservation (DOC) will take action to control them. Some of the methods they use, such as aerial 1080 poisoning and aerial shooting, are considered inhumane and cause significant flow on effect on waterways and birdlife. So ground hunting by recreational hunters as a means of population control and free range protein shopping for many kiwi families can be considered highly sustainable for economic, social and environmental reasons. Not to mention the physical exercise and mental health benefits of providing a person with a purpose, or a mission which ex-military people always seem to feel the urge to have. We are not good at just walking the hills for no reason or sitting still.
After glassing a few younger stags who were in fantastic condition we pulled up camp and made our way further up the spur glassing each side of the hill and just asking in the silence and fresh air. We realised how dry it was up the hill and the normal springs we would expect were dry. The decision was made to climb to the snow line to resupply water and find a camp there.
The Big Boy
With Kiwi Dave and Sam pounding a trail up the hill setting a cracking pace the day warmed up quickly when suddenly after stopping for a drink they both dropped to a knee then lay down.
Knowing that this meant a deer is close we dropped off the back of the spur line and made our way up to them. Dave pointed in the general direction and with the naked eye we saw a large bodied Red Stag with a tonne of white tip flashing in the sunlight. I ripped out the spotting scope and crawled up to Dave for a better look. After watching it for a few minutes through the spotter to assess his age and antlers we could see he was very mature, has seen many breeding seasons to pass on his good genetics had ten very nice shaped points. He was a shooter.
Dave said - “he’s yours mate; you flew all the way over for this, do it”. “Are you sure?” I replied. “Send it”. So setting up for a 260m down slope, full value wind shot with Daves custom Tikka 6.5 Creed I took my time to build a good position and rest in the slippery scree slope we were on.
The first shot was good. A solid right shoulder broadside. He sprung out of his bed and tipped to the right a little, I immediately put a second into the right shoulder and he tipped down the slope out of sight towards us. For anyone that has ever hunted any game. This period after pulling the trigger and seeing or finding your quarry is a time of mixed feelings.
“Was the shot good?”, “Did you see him tip over?”, “What do you think?”. All questions we ask each other. We cracked out the stove and made coffee and had a snack to give the valley time to settle before Dave and I stepped off in search of our deer. As a hunter you want that shot to be perfect, clean and an almost instant dispatch of your game. We were confident that this had happened so we went straight to the bed location of the stag which was an arduous traverse across several gullies. Standing in the stag's bed, giving the signal to the other boys, we had found him, a few metres away as he stood and fell down the slip into a tree.
A sense of mixed feelings hits you at this point. Relief: as you know you made a good clean ethical kill: Euphoria; as after many years of walking public land you have added a NZ Public land Stag to your bag; and Remorse: as you have taken the life of another creature. I accept killing as a way of life. Judge me all you like. But most of the population who mindlessly shovel pharmaceutically enhanced, cage/feedlot raised animals in poor health and terrible conditions who are breed for mass slaughter at a terrible cost to animal welfare, the environment and the health of the consumer will never feel that sense of remorse for the life of the animals they consume every day. Animals are renamed by the time they hit the plate - steak, burger, schnitzel - every other name except for what they are. It’s easier this way.
After sitting for a few minutes to take it all in, Dave and I got the obligatory photos and went to work preparing a euro mount. With Daves wedding coming up he was determined to feed his guests wild venison so we got to work taking as much of the free range venison as we could carry and headed back to the rest of the team.
By now it was mid afternoon, water was low so we punched a few hard kilometres up the slope to resupply water, have a long lunch and decide on the next night's camp. It was a gorgeous sunny, clear day so we soaked in the sunlight for a couple of hours and made the decision to stay on this side of the range and head back to the campsite we passed earlier. No one wants to lose altitude they have gained but this campsite turned out to be amazing. In a small bowl between spurlines, surrounded by trees and perfectly flat we had the tipi up, firewood cut and the party had started. Radix was eaten, story after story told as five strangers become good mates over a Nalgene Silo bottle of Rye crafted into Old Fashions to the sounds of Kenny Logins on repeat and an endless playlist of Seth’s shit music that became the anthems of our trip.
For those that have done alpine traverses before in the winter, sitting around in a warm tent, waking up with dry socks and boots and cooking on the fire is pretty foreign. I don’t know how we could go back to laying in a one or two person tent, sleeping with wet socks on and spending the 14 hours of darkness waiting for the sun to rise. Call me ‘weak’ but camping without a hot tent is not an option now.
The top of the Mountain.
An early before dawn wake up and coffee and we were out the door to glass at first light in the freezing air. Dave and I sat and watched the young stags we saw on day one feeding on an endless supply of knee deep grass and tussock as they kept warm and moved with the sun as it rose. Back to camp for a hot breakfast and coffee we packed down the tipi again and headed back up the hill.
I’m no mountaineer or climber but the exhilaration from summiting a mountain is special. I guess it is our inner child - seeing a young child's face as they first climb to the top of a tower in a playground or a tree you realise that it is pure human nature to be the best and get to the top. It’s survival. So this trip being no different we decided to head to the top of the mountain and over to the next valley to explore it. Seeing a few good mobs of chamois on the way up gave us hope that the next valley held good numbers of chamois and deer. With only early season snow falls we hit the snow line and traversed across a slip and up and over the main range summiting the local peak on the way(for the first time) and made our way down a very steep slope and onto a spur that went down forever.
A quick weather update via the inReach we learned we had some rain or snow was blowing in so we set up camp in what first looked like a good spot but not having a four metre diameter flat spot for the tipi forced us to get creative. We cleared a flat spot, pushed rocks, dirt and logs to build up a small retaining wall and precariously pitched the UL6T straddling the spur and tucked into the edge of a treeline to give us shelter from the storm coming through. For me this really demonstrated the versatility of the tipi. Not having a set foot print that is dictated by the need for a complex pole setup we were able to contour the ground and move the tie out points to suit. Using rocks, double pegs and some cord where needed to get a perfect tie off, we were able to lock the UL6T down ready for whatever the front coming through served to us.
Seth, Dave and I went further down the spur line to glass for signs of deer. Seeing a few hinds and chamois way up the valley and the dark, almost purple and orange clouds rolling in we went back up to camp to help with the last of the nights prep. A tipi full of firewood, five lads and all of our kit were set up just for the snow to start.
With snow melting on the stove and a chunk of ice in our ti cups, rye was poured as the night filled with crap music and stories as we settled in again for a feed of Radix and what was now becoming a traditional dessert of Oreos that Seth seemed to pull from nowhere each night. Pretty stiff and sore from a solid two days walking, a warm bed was a welcome sight. We kept the stove going all night as the snow fell and we awoke to a winter wonderland. A thick white layer of snow on the UL6T and the ground the morning was dead quiet and still. It was stunning - the reason we are out here was to enjoy moments like this where you feel like it's you vs nature.
Deciding the fog and weather were too bad to stay in this valley we studied maps for an alternate route out of the valley. After much debate we decided it was up and over the main range again. A now frosty climb to the top - made easier by a good layer of fresh snow and we hit the summit as the sky cleared up for a few epic fews and photos of the valleys we had explored. We made our way slowly down a different spur to the one we ascended the day prior and unlocked a whole new world below. It looked like something out of an epic viking or fantasy movie. Gigantic waterfalls, the greenest grass you would ever see and a white dusting of frost in the parts that would not see sun now until spring.
We moved towards a spring we could hear and see and set up what would be the best camp yet - flat, sheltered and with an epic view that looked down the valley all the way to the head of the trail we started on. A perfect spot for a bad weather camp.
We pitched the tipi, set the stove and started gathering wood before stepping off for an afternoon glass. This routine we now had down perfectly. Me and Dave did the tipi, Seth the stove and Hamish and Sam grabbed wood and water. It takes no effort at all when this happens. Hardly a word or instruction to each other had to be given either.
We must have seen ten different amazing quality (young) stags, all mobbed up in small groups, playing, fighting, chasing each other around and probably telling the same shit stories we were about failed romances and the endless pursuit of adventure. Many photos and GPS grids were taken for the next few years when these stags would be more mature. Returning to camp the same old nightly routine kicked in for what would be our last night up the valley. Bad music, good food, good drinks and good times - with the obligatory two packs of Oreos for dessert we settled in for an early start.
The sunrise and colours dancing off the valley and fog was something out of a 70’s surf film. Camp was quiet that morning; the sunrise was worthy of five of us scurrying around to try and capture the best pics we could but a photo does not capture the feelings of relief and remorse that it was our last day. It was pretty evident that Seth and Dave might not bag that public land red that they were chasing and it would be a year before we try again. But that’s part of the pursuit and it gave us an excuse to immediately name this trip the ‘Second Annual PAST Outdoors Gear Symposium’. We made some loose promises that we should do this every year and start some tradition. Why not, we had done it twice already?
Coffee drank, down the spur for one last glass we went. We sat and watched the same stags as the previous day feed for hours. Just observing how they moved, what they ate and where they were in relation to the sun, frost, cloud and snow. What an impressive animal they are as they glide up the steepest hills, balance on the smallest ledge as they fight for every last calorie out of the ground before the winter really kicks in.
Content that we had seen enough we made our way back to camp and enjoyed one last Radix Mixed Berry Breakfast each and got ready for the walk out. Knowing we had a decent walk down to the valley floor we ditched any excess water and stepped off. A few good solid hours of walking we were on the river flats that we had walked in on again and on our way back to the carpark.
Knowing what we were in for and a reward of a good solid feed and cold beer awaited us in Christchurch the pace was pretty solid all the way back. Some even choose an icy dip in the river to finish off with.
With the car loaded to the hilt, five sweaty and stinky tired bodies jammed into Sam’s Lancer and we pointed the car South to Christchurch. Stopping for a hot feed before heading to the North South Caravan park to give Dave and Seth a hot shower and fresh clothes for their flight to Auckland.
The goodbyes were as quick as the hellos. A kerbside ‘see you next year’ and a manly hug and the trip was over. In four nights, relative strangers had become good mates. Most of my closest friendships have been forged in the hardest of times and a solid few days in the mountains is no different. It takes teamwork, resolve, toughness and initiative to get through a solid trip like that. Anyone that can do that is a mate of mine.
The only thing left to do after that trip was for Hamish and I to go out and have a romantic dinner at a pub and then go watch Top Gun Maverick at the cinema - because why not! We were lucky to have a couple of days to kill in Christchurch so we spent the following days exploring cafes, outdoors stores and bars/restaurants. I have been to Christchurch several times and it was amazing to see it buzzing again after the hard years since the devastating earthquake and COVID.
Recapping that the endstate of our mission was to validate the UL6T as a viable option for hiking in cold conditions and our range of nutrition can be refined and curated into high performance, ultralight, prepared meal packages. I think it is fair to say we achieved this. The gross weight of all the components was much less than (half the weight) if we bought several smaller tents but the real value comes from the experience of all sitting around cooking, eating and living on a mountain under one roof and staying warm and dry.
Our nutrition plan (let's not talk about the Oreos) was also refined. The lesson learned on that trip and from input from other users has enabled us at PAST Outdoors to further develop our range of ultralight hiking and in particular the pre-packed meal packs. We now supply these meal packs to specialist units in the Ambulance Service, Police Rescue, sporting organisations, outdoors education groups and do custom nutrition plans for customers trips.
To learn more about Christchurch see our article on FIFO trips to NZ coming soon.
Written by Dave Parker with input and edits from all involved on the trip.
A very entertaining and good read. I couldn’t agree more or stop myself laughting at the creek crossing bit at the start. They truly seperate the men from the ‘boys’ haha
A great read Dave!
You have got me excited for another trip over to NZ!!
I’ll definitely be taking some of your gear on my next trip!