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I sat in a Wanaka internet cafe, waiting as the infernally slow internet attempted to load my email inbox. It was 2008 and I only had a $30 brick of a phone and no laptop, so this was the only way I could connect to the rest of the world (and I was fine with that). My time in New Zealand was about escaping into the wilderness, about disconnecting from the world before I had to step into corporate daily life.
Once it loaded, I expected the usual: a few Facebook notifications, an email from my mother, maybe a blog comment or two. What I didn’t expect was to see an email titled “New Zealand Police.” Umm…what? I hadn’t come close to breaking any laws (that I knew of). What did the police want from me?
I opened the email and quickly realised things were serious. The sender had a police.govt.nz email address, and the message read as follows:
this email is in response to missing person information from Fox Glacier New Zealand.
A Newmans bus driver has reported REPSHER has not got on a bus at the Copland valley track on 24th or 25th February.
Kristin, if you read this email, PLEASE REPLY ASAP to me so I can stop any large scale search for you.
Every thought that had been flying around in my head was immediately reduced to “oh crap oh crap oh crap.” Once I’d gotten through the hyperventilation phase — and once I’d sent a hasty email to tell him to please stop any searches that may have been started — I started to wonder about how in the hell the NZ Police got my email address. To me, the only logical conclusion was my immigration form. An immigration form that had my mother’s phone number on it because I had no other numbers when I arrived. CRAP.
I didn’t care about the cost — I called my mother direct. Immediately. I told her that I was not missing, regardless of what the New Zealand police may think. I told her that I knew that, even though I had let her know that I had completed the track safely, she would have freaked out and thought I’d gone back out on the track if the police told her I was lost.
Not a moment too soon. Paul the policeman called the home phone while I was still on the line to her mobile. I listened in as she chirpily told him, “Oh, she’s missing is she? That’s interesting, since she’s on the phone to me right now.” Apparently Paul didn’t appreciate this response because he requested that I hang up and call him immediately.
I followed his directions — after all, I didn’t want to get the police any more offside than they already were. He sounded relieved that I was alive and contactable, but even more relieved that he wasn’t going to have to send people into one of the heavy storms that the West Coast is well known for.
“So what happened Kristin? Why did you miss the bus two days in a row?” Paul asked me.
What had happened? Well, I’d had the best intentions when I left for a quick tramp up the Copland Track. This track actually starts near Mount Cook and traverses Copland Pass before dropping down to the West Coast and finishing 26km south of Fox Glacier. Knowing that I didn’t have the necessary experience to safely navigate Copland Pass, I had decided to do only the 17km stretch on the West Coast side.
The walk in was relatively uneventful, if exhausting. The track traverses a number of river banks covered in boulders, and there are at least 6 stream crossings, all of which have bridges…which each adding about 30 minutes to overall walk time if you choose to go that way. Given I was walking on my own, I had taken a few of them when I wasn’t so sure of my ability to safely cross the stream.
The last stream, Shiels Creek, had no bridge at all. Its location on the side of a small mountain made it a perfect spot for avalanches. After one too many bridges had been wiped out, the Department of Conservation (DOC) gave up and stopped replacing them altogether. Luckily it was a relatively calm crossing that day.
All of the crossings and the sore ankles caused by all of the boulders were made worth it by Welcome Flat. Not only is the hut there both gorgeous and reasonably new, but it stands next to three natural hot pools, all with a slightly different temperature.
These pools are a bit difficult to sit in during the day, since the ban on chemicals (including bug repellent) means the sandflies attack you in droves. At night, though, it’s magical. The stars stretch across the sky in the millions, ringed by 360º of mountain peaks and crags reaching up to touch them. There are no light sources rob visitors of their night vision, so the stars that are visible above the mountains seem to far outnumber the stars you would see in any other sky.
I’d looked at the forecast before heading out on the track, and I knew that the weather on my second day there was supposed to be pretty average. I’d planned to spend the day around the hut, doing a 2-3hr loop further up the track before returning to soak in the hot pools.
“Pretty average” actually turned out to be more along the lines of “torrential rain.” The mountainsides became sheets of water and it was impossible to look in any direction without seeing at least 10 different waterfalls that hadn’t existed the day before. It was rain that would laugh in the face of even the hardiest waterproof gear, so I wisely decided to stay put in the hut (for most of the day at least).
Also staying put was another American solo tramper as well as a group of four Kiwis who had hiked in to visit the hut warden, who was their good friend. Sally, the hut warden, was happy to invite us to join their group, who were all taking refuge in her private area of the hut.
By the end of the day, it felt like we were all good friends. Sally had baked us a cheesecake — a cheesecake! at a hut in the mountains! — using canned goods that had been shipped in to her via helicopter. We had all gone on a short walk to survey the area and had realised we may not be getting out anytime soon after seeing that Shiels Creek had become a raging torrent. And we’d all had a long soak in the hot pools (during a short break in the rain).
Dawn on my third day on the track had presented a completely different landscape once again. Golden light helped to burn off the lingering fog, the last of the clouds of the day before. The brilliant blue skies were promising and we all prepared to head home as we’d planned.
Sally wasn’t quite so certain that it would be that simple. Shiels Creek was still raging, and while it had dropped slightly, it was far higher and faster than any water I’d crossed before. Add that to the fact that, just below us, the stream became a waterfall and leaped down a sheer drop to the Copland River below and it made for quite a dangerous proposition.
Around 11am, Sally decided that the water levels had dropped enough that, with her help, we could cross safely. Unfortunately, that crossing time meant that the earliest I would make it to the end of the track would be 6pm — well past the scheduled 3pm pickup on the daily Wanaka-West Coast Intercity bus. Luckily, my new Kiwi friends had driven to the trailhead and were happy to drop both of us solo walkers back in town.
The walk was long but made much better by a bit of company. We made sure to cross all of the other streams with the provided bridges; after all, we were slightly hesitant after the somewhat terrifying crossing we’d started our day with. Eventually, we made our way to the trailhead and to the cold beers and steaks waiting at the Cook Saddle Cafe in Fox Glacier.
It would have been easy to just forget about the planned bus pickup and go on my merry way. As much as the beginning of this post may suggest, I didn’t do that. Instead, I set my alarm to give myself plenty of time to go to the Intercity bus stop the following morning so I could find the driver and apologise to him. I knew, from having ridden a number of buses during my time in NZ, that it would be the same driver that had come north the day before, and I wanted him to know that I really was sorry for keeping him (and everyone on the bus) waiting.
Unfortunately, I slept in. I woke up after the bus had already departed, and I had so little time before my own bus (run by a different company) left that I barely managed to pack up and check out of my hostel in time. It was a shame that I wouldn’t get to apologise, but I didn’t realise what that would mean.
The bus driver made sure to stop at the Copland Track again on the day after I had been booked. When I didn’t show then — since I was nearly in Wanaka by that stage — he got Intercity to contact the DOC. The DOC then tried to contact Sally to see if she’d seen me, but she didn’t answer since she was on the track doing cleanup works. They were then concerned enough that they called the cops to begin a search effort.
Once I’d told Paul (a shortened version of) my story, he accepted it but sternly warned me that if I ever missed a bus again — especially if it was near a track head — that I needed to contact the company immediately to inform them of my whereabouts so others weren’t needlessly endangered in an unwarranted search effort.
Duly chastised, I promised that I would definitely do this in the future. I didn’t miss a bus for the rest of my trip…but I did hike just a little bit more comfortably, knowing that if something bad did happen while I was on my own in the backcountry, even the bus drivers of the country were looking out for me.
More information about walking the Copland Track can be found in the official DOC brochure.