Heading out on a ‘weekend mission’ is a bit more involved than it used to be, but last weekend we were invited to join some friends on a mission and we decided we were up for the challenge.

On Friday night we drove into the Matukituki valley and parked opposite the East Matukituki confluence. We sorted out gear and then waded across the knee deep river to a pleasant camp spot amongst the cows on the other side.

Lena was most intrigued by the tent and was very excited to snuggle down between Mum and Dad in her own wee sleeping bag. In the morning we faced another ‘tramping with kid’ dilemma as our friends arrived, but were not keen to compromise on their selected campsite (which was too far for us) or the potential hold ups in our day. I was very disappointed, but Chris and Lena took it more philosophically and were excited about their adventure in the hills rather than feeling annoyed.

We are quickly learning that with a young one in tow you sometimes you just have to grin and bear it – and then laugh afterwards. As we trudged across the cow paddocks in the cool morning air Lena howled and her nose ran and she had cold hands and all was misery!

We finally reached the bush, administered some milk to Lena of the human variety, warmed the hands in the sun and changed a pooey nappy and things seemed merry again – except I was still feeling grumpy about my friends decision to ditch us.

Further up the river Lena fell asleep in the backpack, so Chris and I quietly continued huffing and puffing our way up the track that leads through the forest with the blue Matukituki babbling away below us. We reached the confluence of the Kitchener river and stopped for a very cold swim and picnic with the sandflies. Chris invented a game called ‘throw all the bowls and cups into the river and watch them float away’ which Lena of course absolutely loved… and it wasn’t long before he had to go for a rapid swim to rescue a lost bowl. I laughed quite hard!

The bowl throwing game
Crossing the East Matukituki

We then continued upstream to the bridge and started climbing steeply up towards Albert Saddle on the track. I quickly got left behind by Chris, carrying Lena and a good amount of our other gear attached onto various parts of the baby backpack.

Lena climbing up through the forest

We finally emerged out of the bush and the track starts sidling before dropping back into the valley that leads to Rabbit Pass. At that point we left the track and started climbing up through some old burnt-down scrub up the spur. Slowly the scrub became tussocks and Lena snoozed off again so we could walk for a descent stint. After a while I noticed Chris coming back down towards me, without Lena.

He casually grabbed my pack and said that Lena was just waiting higher up. We climbed back up and sure enough, there she was, sat in the mountains with not a soul in sight, but perfectly content. I suppose it would have taken her a while to get very far, but still… Chris?

After a nice laze in the sun and some great gazing at Tititea, which from this direction is just fearsome, we decided that we could make the final push up to Albert Burn Saddle. Lena was pretty happy in the backpack as we climbed up the last slopes singing baa baa black sheep and various other trendy tunes as we went.

The Albert Burn Saddle is a beautiful spot – and the last time I had been there was back in Godzone in 2015. Then it had been early morning, bleak and windy and felt pretty inhospitable after a tough night’s racing. Now it was filled with evening light and warmth. We found a neat campsite beside a tiny stream with a little waterfall. For Lena the highlight probably of the entire trip was pitching the tent and crawling around inside. Squeals of delight came from the tent as I set to cooking dinner on our little stove.

Tent pitching fun
Albert Burn Saddle campsite

Chris headed out for a quick run and recce of Dragonfly Peak, spotting our friends pitching their tents by a tarn on the other side of the mountain. He was back down in time for dinner and then dessert, hot drinks and stories on the balcony of the private chalet ‘Whare Kea’ which sits up at the Saddle as the sun slowly set behind Mt Aspiring.

Sunset on Mt Aspiring from Albert Burn Saddle
Story time at Kea Chalet

In the night the wind came up and rustled the tent wildly, but Lena slept like a log. It was cool and windy in the morning, so we reviewed our options, but then decided that heading over Dragonfly Peak and descending an unknown valley on the other side was still worthwhile.

Ascending Dragonfly Peak

One thing which had been troubling me since our departure had been our lack of map. I guess I put a lot of store in Chris’ pretty amazing navigation skills and he reckoned he could ‘kind of remember’ what the map showed and his peering in through the window of a distant map in the Kea Chalet satisfied him but I wasn’t quite so confident.

As we climbed up towards Dragonfly Peak we spotted a lone tramper climbing ahead of us. We made good progress and before long we were in a small basin with only a short slope to climb to reach the summit. Lena was having a great time walking along in a snow patch using my far too tall poles. Then all of a sudden she stopped and bent down to pick something up. Chris and I wondered what on earth it could be…. only to discover she had found a babies dummy! It really made us laugh because we had just been speculating how there couldn’t have been many babies up here before. We had just been proved wrong by Lena!

A snowpatch and unlikely place to find a dummy…
Poles can be helpful!

There was a brisk wind and it was a bit overcast when we reached the top of the peak. We greeted the other tramper who was also at the summit and he seemed a friendly fellow and on talking quickly offered us a spare paper map print out he had. Excellent! Lena had a running nose and cold hands by now, and maybe just the general inhospitible nature of the place started to get to her because she started howling. The poor fellow tramper certainly didn’t get much summit tranquility.

Unfortunately for the tramper we were also following the same route down, so he had to listen to a howling Lena for quite some time. I gave her my warm woolly gloves and we popped her in the backpack and before long she was happily snoozing and we had some peace again and a good chuckle for the poor, kind, map-giving man.

We thought we could drop into the head of the creek directly, but as we descended it began to get steeper and steeper. A quick glance at the map and we realised we would have to climb to the ridge again and then along to the tarn that our friends had camped at. As we backtracked we could spot them almost on the summit of the final peak on the ridgeline – Mt Eostre.

Tititea from the summit of Dragonfly
Descending into the head of Mill Creek, Mt Eostre in the centre of the picture

We quickly descended tussocky slopes into the head of Mill Creek. The valley looked flat and open and good travel. The creek meandered along the valley floor and it was much warmer than up on the ridgeline. Once Lena awoke we found a nice spot for a picnic lunch. We speculated on whether our route might prove a bit faster than our friends.

Further downstream the gradient steepend and we found ourselves climbing down large river boulders and small cascades. I was finding the terrain challenging and had to constantly put my worries aside about how on earth Chris could be so sure footed with little Lena on his back!

The steep little gorge we got stuck in

Chris stopped suddenly and peered over an ominous looking edge. “We can’t get down here,” he said calmly. I looked at the steep, closed in sides of the valley around us and wondered how we were going to get down. For the second time now the presence of a map was a releif. A quick look showed more gentle contours on a spur on the true left of the stream.

Once again we retraced our steps back up the hill and headed down the leftward spur. We quickly could see that we could get down this way and both felt a bit relieved. Luckily Lena seemed to be really chilled in the backpack as we descended into the main Mill Creek Valley.

Again we were moving quickly downstream, so it was only a moderate surprise to us when we saw our friends climbing up through some scrub ahead of us. I wasn’t sure I really wanted to catch them given how I felt, but another part of me felt kind of satisfied that we had been speedy enough to catch them, along with a baby!

Apparently Mill Creek used to be farmed and there is the remnants of a cattle track on the spur that leads down into the Matukituki. We found a few markers and a rough trail, so the going was quite fast down into the bush. We did catch our friends and had a bit of a tough conversation with them.

Lena relaxing in the backpack

After that conversation there were some lessons learnt on both sides I think. But it didn’t take away from the amazing trip we had had. Our second day was quite long and Lena had done really well. We felt chuffed to have shared a proper adventure with our wee girl. Burgers and a surprise meeting with inspiring adventurer Danilo Hegg in Wanaka topped it off and we started scheming our next trip straight away.