The plan for the weekend, on paper at least, was simple enough. Meet in Tekapo on Friday night and drive the 4×4 track to Macaulay Hut. Spend Saturday walking up something. Drive back Sunday afternoon. On reflection… Saturday went well.
But before we get ahead of ourselves, there is a small amount of back story and scene setting required.
Macaulay Hut is located in the Sibbald Mountain Range, north of Tekapo in the Mackenzie region of the South Island, New Zealand. Access to the hut is via an 18km, 4×4 track involving several river crossings and some boulder avoiding manoeuvres. Seeing as none of us had been to the hut or driven the track, we thought it only responsible to drive it at night, after several hours of driving from Christchurch after a full day’s work. There was nine of us in total, split into four cars, or to put another way:
Team ‘Let’s Just Give It A Go And See What Happens’ consisting of life partners (who insist of being referred to as that for some reason) Steve and Jackie, piloting a Land Rover Discovery. The most capable of the 4×4 armada, which, as you’re about to find out from the other teams, didn’t take that much. As you can probably gather from their team name, this trip was their idea.
Team ‘I Borrowed My Work Mate’s 4×4’ consisted of Ben and Blair, at the helm of a… Black 4×4 thing. I’m fairly sure that wasn’t the make or model of the 4×4, but seeing as I forgot to take any notes while we were on the trip, it’s the most accurate description I can come up with. Which from now on shall be known as the ‘Black Thing’. Ben had borrowed the 4×4 from a work colleague, who when asked what the terrain was going to be like, Ben Google imaged ‘4×4 Macaulay Hut’ and the first image to come up was a 4×4 being washed away by a river. The second image was a 4×4 that had rolled onto its side. Thankfully the third image was a nice grassy paddock on a fine summers day, so naturally this was the image that he sent over.
Team ‘Wild Card’ consisted of Rob and Tom who were crewing a rear wheel drive, flat bed work truck. Originally the truck wasn’t going to be brought along but after a few beers the 4×4 track was downgraded to a ‘can’t be that bad’ status which lasted about 200 meters until the first river crossing where they had to be towed out.
And finally Team ‘Wee Dinky’ consisting of myself and the other life partners of the group (who also, for some unknown reason, insist on referring to themselves as such) Matt and Kat. Together we were commanding a Toyota Rav 4, affectionately known as ‘Wee Dinky’ and the general butt of many jokes – much like the owner – who unfortunately, was me.
So now we’re all up to speed, let us now head over to the beginning of the adventure at the start of the 4×4 track at 10:30pm on a chilly Friday night. Due to my limited 4×4 driving experience, mainly consisting of driving up ski field access roads and accidently knocking the diff-lock engage button when reversing into parking spaces, I was a little apprehensive as we stood in the dark preparing to embark. A discussion ensued over some beers regarding how the track would be ‘fine’ and ‘let’s just give it a go’, to which I found myself being persuaded and at ease, once I had considered these well thought out and balanced arguments.
And so we set off, down a steep slope and straight through some knee deep large puddles / small lakes / modest swimming pools, depending on which terminology you prefer as I can’t think of the right term for that particular volume of water. We had been warned beforehand that the track started with a river crossing, and naively thinking we’d just cruised through it with ease, spirits were high and confidence grew with each swig of beer and missed gear change. However, this was to last for all of about a minute when we arrived at the actual river crossing. My initial cockiness rapidly receded at about the same speed of the fast flowing river that we were expected to cross. After some discussion regarding the most suitable route and driving technique to achieve a successful river crossing, to which I just stared blankly and nodded a lot, the Land Rover was first to go. And go it did. Taking a slightly unconventional route i.e. not the one I had nodded in agreement to, it powered up the other side of the river to a cheer and relief from the rest of the group, as we now knew that if we didn’t make it, the Land Rover could always tow us out. The Black Thing was next to take up the challenge and was steered to victory without too much drama. The same couldn’t be said for Team Wildcard however, as they fell at the last hurdle and got the rear of the truck stuck on the outlet of the crossing and needed towing from the Land Rover. That event had a mixed effect on me as it was nice to know that we could get towed out without too much fuss, but I was worried about what effect several litres of river water pouring into my petrol driven engine would have on the overall trip. It was about here in the expedition, approximately 200 meters from the start of the track, where I first showcased my preferred river crossing technique – hard and fast while revving the shit out of the engine. Which for the most part worked pretty well up until we approached the exit of the river where we appeared to be drifting uncontrollably to the left, in the direction of the river’s flow. Some more revving and frantic turning of the steering wheel seemed to sort this out as we clambered onto dry land to the sounds of whooping, high fives and the sizzling of cold river water on a hot engine. Only 17,800 meters to go and we were smashing it.
For the next few kilometres the 4×4 track took on a much more agreeable nature and we were able to relax a bit and started to enjoy the drive. Heading out in convoy, it was exciting driving into the unknown with the unexpected sounds of Parov Stelar providing some electro-swing music, keeping us in a good mood as we picked our way through small boulder fields and tried our best not to lose the path. A common occurrence was to head down what we thought was the correct route, for the path to then just fizzle out, and it transpiring that the leaders had missed some obscure pile of stones or tyre tracks that would lead us in the right direction. As the cars were reshuffled, a different team took the lead and inevitably lost the track within 20 minutes or so. This did however lead to a nice mix of teams taking it in turns and the blame of losing the path evenly distributed amongst the group.
After picking our way through some more rocks we came to our second testing river crossing of the night and as it transpired, a repeat of the earlier attempt. No issues for the Land Rover. No dramas for the borrowed Black Thing. A fall at the last hurdle for the truck and a tow from the Land Rover. And a revved up, hard and fast river crossing from Wee Dinky… to everyone’s surprise and relief.
Time was getting on and we knew that the track normally takes about 2.5hrs to complete. Around midnight Steve informed the group with enthusiasm that we were almost half way there! Which I don’t think was greeted with the whoops and cheers he was expecting. The continued toilet stops I was having to take due to my combination of beer intake and minute bladder, meant that I’d decided to stop drinking, which in turn meant that I was starting to come down from my initial electro-swing, alcohol fuelled high. The continued loss of the track and picking our way around car damaging rocks was slowing progress and sapping the morale of the group.
We approached what was thought to be the final river crossing of the evening at around 1:30am. Although this crossing seemed more challenging than the previous, with strict instructions to avoid certain areas and control the entry speed, each team just ploughed through, with no towing required, such was the want to get to the hut. 20 minutes later we arrived at the hut sign, and within 10 minutes we were parked outside the hut basking in our own smugness for making it with no mechanicals or lost souls in only a brief 3.5 hours.
Blair was first to enter the hut and we watched from the outside as his head torch darted about the building. A few moments later he emerged at the door and walked over to us to explain the situation:
‘So there are three hunters already in the hut. Their stuff is everywhere. What I think we should do is get in and make our presence known…’
Before any of us had a chance to respond, Blair stormed back into the hut and started banging about the place, presumably making his presence known. We opted for the more subtle, yet probably just as annoying approach of standing outside the hut talking loudly about the previous 4×4 adventure we’d just survived. One of the hunters who was evidently a very light sleeper turned out to be very chatty, and after some discussion regarding the vehicles we’d chosen to drive here (Wee Dinky was jokingly described as ‘inappropriate’… at least I assumed he was joking) we climbed into bed at 3am. The last thing I heard before putting my headphones on was the hunter enquiring ‘So whereabouts are you all from?’ as I rolled over and pretended not to hear.
Four hours later the inconsiderate hunters were all up, ready to take on the day and eager to kill something. I was going to make a sarcastic comment along the lines of ‘could you keep it down’, but they didn’t seem to be in an overly good mood – can’t imagine why – and they had guns. So I just opted for a tut and a wink… which I think none of them saw, but unfortunately all of them heard.
In spite of the large risks driving a 4×4 track at night, not knowing where you’re going and being out of mobile phone coverage, the up side is that arriving at night means you wake up the following morning with no idea what the view is going to be like. Granted, this could backfire and it turns out we took a wrong turn and ended up in an industrial estate, but this time it was epic. The hut is situated on the side of the valley where it is possible to look several kilometres down the track that we drove up the night before. Being above the tree line at 1100 meters means that the surrounding mountains have this epic rock / scree surface that adds to the dramatic atmosphere of the location. Basically, It’s awesome.
As far as huts go, Macaulay Hut is possibly the nicest one I’ve ever been to. The hut was constructed by the McKenzie Alpine Trust, and man they did a good job of it. The construction is better than many of the homes I’ve stayed at in Christchurch and the use of large stone sections for the walls gives the place an excellent charm. The hut is surprisingly well stocked too, with an oven, outside bath and solar lights. Tom had brought some chocolate mousse for dessert and after some piss taking from me along the lines of ‘bet you wished you’d bought a whisk’ (admittedly not the wittiest of piss takes), he went and found himself a whisk amongst the many utensils available at the hut; such is the way Tom deals with piss taking.
After a bit of a drawn out breakfast the plan was to head in the opposite direction of the hunters, as apparently at a distance, a person carrying a blue rucksack walking on two legs may be mistaken for a deer (?), and head up the nearby ridge to the reach the Tindill Basin – a turquoise pool that, from the photos, looked incredibly inviting. Unfortunately there wasn’t a formal path so for the most part, the walk / scramble consisted of wading through thick, spiky vegetation at an angle of about 60 degrees. A few hours and fake summits later we were above the Tindill Basin, where from our elevated vantage point, the glacial, turquoise blue of the pool resembled something closer to pond algae and wasn’t as inviting for a cheeky dip as we’d hoped. Instead we opted to climb the next summit in front of us for the novelty of being above 2000 metres. Sufficient photos taken, victory whisky consumed and a run down a 700 metre scree slope, we were back at the hut and I was fighting off the need for a nap as I waited for an acceptable time to go to bed.
Sunday morning rolled around and after a short morning walk up the valley, we loaded up the wagons and embarked upon the drive back to civilisation. The sun was still shining, and it was a beautiful day for a casual drive where we could take in all the sights we missed on the way in. As it happened, we had ample time to take in the views of the surrounding area, as 2 hours later, with a distance of about 1.5km travelled (we could still see the hut) we only had one working car – which I’d like to point out, was Wee Dinky.
Which would make such an amazing cliff hanger / interlude for a movie or the end of a chapter in a book. So in an attempt to create that sense of anticipation, I’ve added a larger amount of line breaks than normal between paragraphs.
Welcome back. So I guess you’re dying to know what happened, so here we go…
As it turns out negotiating the first few kilometers of the 4×4 track from the hut in the day isn’t a great deal easier than at night. Due to the river that runs through the valley being of the ‘braided’ type, its route changes every year when the water levels rise. Therefore there is no defined track and it’s easy to get disorientated as you navigate your way via cairns (piles of stones), waratahs (metal bars with orange tops dug into the ground) and old tyre tracks (i.e. old tyre tracks. That one should be fairly self-explanatory). Wee Dinky was leading the charge out of the hut and we were at such an intersection, discussing whether we’d gone the right way, when we noticed that Team I Borrowed My Mate’s 4×4 wasn’t moving. More worryingly, they had gotten out and were looking under the car. It turned out that they had hit a rock on the underside of the engine and damaged the oil manifold that did something important (I’m not a car person) and their car was designated KIA. More worryingly was a trail of fluid that led back to Team Let’s Just Give It A Go And See What Happens. Upon closer inspection it appeared the power steering fluid pipe had burst and would need on the spot repairing. Thankfully Team Wildcard came armed with a mechanic, in the shape of Tom, who set to work trying to fix the Land Rover. With at least a 2 hour wait on our hands and a predominately British group, we got the camping chairs out and put on a brew. It was actually quite civilised sat in the sun with our tea and biscuits, while the more useful and mechanically minded of the group set to work improving our situation. It’s probably not worth noting that I’m a mechanical engineer and my only contribution was to suggest putting the kettle on.
As repairs on the Land Rover were coming to an end, it was mooted that we make a start on towing the Black Thing into position and get it set up for when we’d be on our way. Team Wildcard began to manoeuvre the truck into a towing position, when all of the sudden the rear wheels began to spin and dig themselves into the stony ground, rendering the truck immobile. Horror slowly spread across the group’s collective face at the realisation that the only working vehicle was now the Rav 4, and past jokes of Wee Dinky towing out all of the cars was becoming a terrifying reality. As an aside, I also realised my place within the group – providing a means of salvation to the Wee Dinky non-believers. I quickly slung my cape on, climbed atop of Wee Dinky, raised my hand into the air and was about to announce ‘ALL BOW TO THE POWER OF WEE DINKY!’ when I was interrupted by the sound of the truck gaining traction and towing out the Black Thing. This thankfully drew the attention away from me and gave me time to climb down, remove my cape and give a polite applause to acknowledge the improvement of our situation.
But the main thing was, we had progress. The Black Thing was in position, being towed by the truck. The Land Rover had been bodged to a decent enough extent for it to be drive-able, and Wee Dinky continued to be solid as a rock, steady and true.
And so we set off, slowly at first, as Tom got used towing several tons of 4×4 behind him; and Blair, at the wheel of the Black Thing, adjusted to having approximately half a second of reaction time before he had to slam on the brakes or turn hard to avoid colliding with either the tow truck or another rock. In the back of everyone’s mind were the river crossings we’d need to negotiate. Considering that the truck was the tow-ee for 2 out of 3 river crossings on the way in, it wasn’t looking overly optimistic that it would be able to be the tow-er on the way out. The first river crossing was upon us soon enough and after much discussion of the best route, the Land Rover negotiated a way through, leading the way. We all waited with baited breath (which I’m sure is the correct term but I have no idea what it means) as the truck pulled the Black Thing through the fast flowing water. The truck’s wheels were spinning in places and it looked like it was all going wrong, but with a final tug the rear wheels of the truck made it onto dry land and hauling along with it, the towed cargo. I thought the cheers on the Friday night were impressive, but we had nothing to lose going in. Now we, or maybe more accurately Ben, had everything to lose going out and the cheers were a product of a genuine sense of relief as both cars made it through the river. Wee Dinky was last through. No issues. Standard.
An additional benefit of driving out during the day time, aside from the lovely surrounding views of the valley, was that we were able to actually follow the 4×4 track. After a short while things began to settle down and it actually became quite enjoyable, smugly driving at the back of the pack, listening to some more electro-swing and soaking up the sunshine. It was becoming fairly obvious that on the Friday night, we had pretty much just driven our own route in. Blissfully unaware that a decent, well formed 4×4 track was several meters to our left, we had just soldiered on, finding our own way.
As the sun began to set, and with it the fading light, we made it to the final river crossing that metaphorically and physically stood between us and our salvation, and a nice, solid, gravel road. Tom edged the truck into the river and then floored it through the subsequent bow wave as Blair frantically attempted to keep the Black Thing following the same line. More wheel spinning and tension later, the truck was through, with the Black Thing in tow, and Tom and Blair became the first people in history to tow a 4-wheel drive with a 2-wheel drive along a 4-wheel drive track.
After a well-earned victory beer at the end of the 4×4 track, in the same place we had stood on the Friday evening, we headed back into Tekapo for dinner, hoping to get there before the restaurant kitchen shut. This time of the night seemed to also coincide with the suicidal rabbit time, as endless rabbits kept hurling themselves in front of Wee Dinky. Thankfully there was only the one casualty, as a result of me having to make the executive decision to not dangerously swerve and brake to avoid the bunnies and just plough on forward. The car felt a little wobbly once we were on the tar-sealed road, however I just put that down to some 4×4 damage over the weekend and we continued on. We regrouped in Tekapo for dinner and then set off in our respective teams back to either Christchurch or Queenstown – aside from Team I Borrowed My Mates 4×4 who had to spend the night in Tekapo and attempt to get the car fixed and ‘professionally’ towed back to Christchurch.
As we were driving back we noticed that Wee Dinky was feeling increasingly twitchy, but seeing as that disappeared once we got up to about 60km in speed, we just dismissed it as superficial 4×4 damage and would deal with it once we were back in Christchurch. An approach that worked for, coincidentally, about 60km, before the front left wheel exploded. Thankfully we weren’t going that fast at the time and were able to pull over safely and change the tyre. A sound that was less audible than the large bang of the bursting tyre, was the evaporation of my smugness of having the only vehicle that didn’t suffer a mechanical failure or require towing for the entire trip.
The following account is from Ben, providing his perspective from behind the wheel of the Black Thing…
My gut feel was that lending a friends 4×4 for the trip was going to end badly, but I carried on regardless for the adventure of it. Surely it couldn’t be that bad. I’ve been in some pretty interesting situations before… friends falling and breaking their ankle and back… abseiling down waterfalls after 16 hours in the mountains as a storm rolls in… but this trip certainly took me to a level of uncomforting worry that I could not handle.
We rolled down an embankment and a certain large bang filled me with fear. Blair jumped out and gave the well know sign for ‘cut it off’ by passing his hand in front of his throat. The look on his face and the swearing from his mouth told me this was bad. The 18km back to the road already had my nerves in tatters, but now this was a special kind of devastation. I glanced at the hut, which I could of thrown a rock at, and felt nothing but worry. What the hell happens now?
Very kindly and with outstanding manners, Tom let me know that the Black Thing was essentially irreparable in our current location, and would have to be towed. He also noticed another issue and leakage not associated with mine. So he went off to investigate that problem instead, leaving me to my deep, deep worry.
Blair saw it as a challenge to get the Black Thing out. I had already decided that towing was not possible. Especially over the route we had driven in. We wouldn’t be able to carry the speed, and the 6 meter, 2 tonne, Soft Strop that I had ‘borrowed’ from work was going to be interesting to tow with for a start.
I had already assumed that the Land Rover Discovery would tow me out so when I saw the bonnet up and Tom and Steve elbows deep in its oily engine, it was not a good sight to be seen. My worry grew somewhat deeper.
Obviously a pot of tea was required. Definitely some biscuits. Some glances at the hut which we had only just left, and a lot of feeling rather numb about the whole situation, ensued. I couldn’t sit down for long without thinking of the disaster, so I busied myself in taking the Black Thing’s spoiler and sports kit off in case it got in the way of towing. It was decided by group decision to use the 2wd work truck and get the towing started. Everyone knew it was going to be a long afternoon. The 2wd truck then got stuck. Leaving the Rav 4, which could have probably parked itself in the Black Thing’s boot, as a unlikely candidate for the towing. A conscious effort was made to free the 2wd and after getting it in to position and rigging everything up, we started to tow.
I was essentially crippled with worry and fear. If we can’t tow it out what the hell do I do? Helicopter to collect it? See if some of dudes I know from work are up for a 4×4 challenge? Tell my mate we left his car as a feature on the trail? None of these options I wanted to pursue any further. We had to give it a go. Plus as the group had already collaboratively started the towing process for me anyway, I might as well go along with it. Just try not to think about the trail ahead or the river crossings. Try not to think about any of that.
We started well and the effort from the team was powerful. Tom drove the 2wd. Blair drove the Black Thing. Rob and Jackie ran off as scouts for the trail ahead. Steve used the Land Rover to break trail. Matt and Kat took their place in the tray of the 2wd, jumping up and down in the softer ground to keep the traction. Ian cruised in Wee Dinky at the back, seemingly happy as could be. I took a more nervous role of scouting, residing in the 2wd tray, taking some photos and generally trying to avoid thinking about anything that laid ahead. Especially the river crossings.
The first river crossing came and with good speed we cruised on through. It went well. Much better than expected. Maybe we can get this Black Thing back to town. Just don’t think about the final river crossing. Or the rest of the trail ahead.
We rolled on and the Black Thing kept going surprisingly well. Easily through the big mud puddle and easily along the nice and smooth 4wd track that I was adamant was right next to our rugged river route. A perfect 4wd track for towing and moving swiftly on. The sky was becoming a lovely shade of pink, and we were surely going to get this car back to solid ground. Just the final river crossing to get through.
As soon as the river crossing came in to view I was beyond scared. Beyond worry. Beyond fear. I just wanted it to be over. Could I watch the Black Thing go through? Did I want to be inside the car as it went through? All I could think of is Blairs single slip in his upbeat and good natured view on the situation “we don’t want to lose the car to the river. That would be real bad”. Yes. Yes it would.
I jumped in with Tom. The coolest and calmest person I know and without much more than a murmur he slowly tipped the 2wd in to the river. We quickly lost our good speed. The wheels started spinning. Lights started flashing on the dash. We started to drift. Tom held his grip, held his foot in place and simply said ‘…..cooome on’. I was silently in pieces.
The stones flicking back at the Black Thing hadn’t even crossed my mind. The tow rope slipping off the tow ball hadn’t even crossed my mind, but slowly I realised we were going to make it. We were so close to the other side. I could have silently exploded there and then. We had made it. I jumped out the 2wd and let out some expletives. We had made it through the last hurdle. Horns were honked. Howls of joy were let out. Just have to watch Wee Dinky sail through and we were on the home straight. Or so I thought. We had to roll further forwards and get out of the way for Wee Dinky’s crossing.
Still full of joy and putting any further unknowns about the state of the car to the back of my mind, we started to roll up the next hill. Which suddenly became much steeper than the ones we had been up before. The wheels started to slip and with no weight in the tray we were losing traction. We had come so far! Tom kept his cool and silence was upon me again. This was ridiculous. We slowed to a snail’s pace and with the lights flashing and stones flying, I again expected the absolute worse. I was desperate for a drink. Desperate to get back to town. Desperate for the next couple days to be over and done with. We’ve got to get back to Christchurch yet! I felt like exploding. Again!
We crested the hill and assumed a waiting position. We had done it. We had made it back to the road. I found a drink. We cracked open some beers and recounted a great effort all round. What a team. It was awesome.
We drank our beers and decided to swiftly move on. Tekapo was a little way away yet and it was getting dark. We had been towing for a good 5 hours and the strain was showing. We set off at good speed. Probably too much speed as the tow rope jerked and dust flew from the 2wd temporarily blocking our view. Then the Black Thing started to give up the ghost. The alarm started going off. The power steering cutting out. The radio going berserk. The lights dwindling. The battery was dead.
We stopped once more to assess the situation, and without much more than a decision that I would hold my hand out the window with a headtorch instead of us using headlights, we pushed on, slowly. The easy bit was going to be testing as well.
Nearly 7 hours after starting the journey back to town we rolled in to Tekapo. My arm frozen. My hand clenched around the torch. Tom and Blair in a state you can only really achieve after becoming the first people ever to tow a 4wd with a 2wd, through rivers and negotiating boulders, no lights and no power steering for the final bit. We had made it to Tekapo. In time to get food. I was overwhelmed to say the least. It was a solid effort by the whole team. We feasted and bid our farewells. I returned to my worry and thoughts of uncertainty at getting back to Christchurch.
The following day, Blair jumped off the bus in Dunsandel with a buzz of an adventure, astounded that the English had decided to make some tea in the middle of a crisis, and some specially made Caesar salad plans to make it up to his wife. I jumped off the bus in Christchurch at 5pm on Monday night. Ian came to pick me up and decided to have a wee nap in his car without telling me where he was parked. Meaning I didn’t feel completely at ease till about 6pm when I eventually got a ride home. Within a couple of weeks the Black Thing was fixed. My mate’s misses could drive herself to work and their son to school in their 4×4 again. One hell of an adventure under our belts and a story to be told. That trip was a spectacular kind of awesome! Definitely doing it all again for sure. Next time though, I don’t think I’ll drive.