Thoughts on our trek to Mount Richardson

Yesterday we went up Mount Richardson in the Oxford forest in the South Island of New Zealand. Here are what we did on that trip, and some reflections from the trip.

The trig at the top of Mount Richardson. To the left is the view we had from the top of Mount Richardson. On a sunny day, this would have rewarded us with the view of Rolleston range and the ice capped peaks (in Winter). You can see it was a very dull day.

Mount Richardson is a hidden jewel in the Glentui tramping tracks near the Oxford township. This Sunday, we went to explore Mount Richardson.

We started at around mid day, drove for about twenty minutes to the Glentui picnic area (see the link above). We reached the Glentui picnic area around mid day, and found a signpost that said Mount Richardson, a climb of 1047 metres would be about a couple of hours away. The sky overcast and a mild chill in the air, we could not see the peak from the picnic area, but assumed that it would be cold out there in the top. We put on our jackets and started out.

We sidled up a steady uphill narrow track through a dense beech forest. Walking up, we could see far down in the forest floor the Glentui river flowing that would eventually form a pool. The Glentui waterfall would cascade down from the little pool in the rock. After about fifteen minutes of steady walk upstream, we stopped by a mountrain stream. A few birds flew above us, quickly hiding in the foliage, their whirring of wings and calls breaking the silence of the forest. The mountain stream added a meditative soundscape to the moody afternoon atmosphere.

The mountain stream and the dense beech forest

After another hour of steady climb, the track became rough, with loose rocks slipped beneath our feet and dry gravel; We kept slipping as we negotiated steep slopes over dry gravelly loose soils and rocks. Trees had fallen and crossed the track. By two hours, we could feel it was getting tough.

Through a parting in the forest, we could see Canterbury in the far out; we could sense how high we climbed. Wispy clouds rolled in, we could feel the condensation settling on us, a cold waft of misty mountain air caressed us as we pressed on. Nectar like dewdrops from the tree trunks suspended in the mountain air.

Nectar like dewdrops hung in the air from the tree trunks

The climb got rough by then, we scrambled over fallen trees and slipping rocks. Then, our nine-year old daughter almost gave up. After two and a half hour of steady climb, she was tired and needed rest. We stopped, toying with the idea we might return from that point. We munched on apples and dates and sipped water. A family of father, mom and two children and two dogs passed by. They were returning, they said, the children gave up to go up any farther.

We were in two minds. On the one hand we could give up and return. On the other, it was tantalising to do the summit, as we knew we were not far from the mountain top. We climbed a little more, then stopped, legs tired, it was endless climbing at that point through a rough track. Mou and Maurine (mom and daughter) decided to drop anchor and rest. I went up to scout the route on the way to the mountain top.

View of the Canterbury plains in the distance and the rough track to the right

I walked for another ten minutes through the terrain filled with loose rocks as fast as I could, breaking into a jog. I could sense the breath, pant, and sweat and the tiredness rising within me. I clambered up a scree and a short walk later, reached the mountain top. Then I return to our resting point. Which was when, mum and daughter were rested enough and were now raring to go.

We started. It turned out that while Mou and Maurine were resting by the trackside, they met a couple who went past them aiming to reach the summit. The couple told them there was a longer but flatter slope on the other side of the mountain top they could take to go down. They thought it’d be easier for us as we were travelling with a child, instead of this steep path if we returned the way we came up. So, if we could muster a little more energy to go up the mountain top, there would be an easier way out. Longer. But easier. Shall we?

The way to Mountain top; in the middle, the signpost of the Mountain top; (right): the trig at the summit

The long descent home

How long would that way be for us? We had no idea at the moment. As we continued to climb, on the way up a scree slope, we met a couple with dogs on leash. The man had a sombrero hat and he held a pair of dogs on leash. He told us that he went over the other side of the mountain top and then kind of lost their way. He was confused that there were a couple of tracks, not knowing which way to go, and one of the tracks led to what looked like a moutain bike path, but then again, he got confused, did not know which was which so he returned and would rather prefer the way he came up.

Two paths diverged, and we, we took the road less? travelled …

Anyway, we reached the summit. The day was dull and at past two in the afternoon with thick clouds rolling in, there was not much of a view by then. On a sunny day, we would be rewarded wiht a spectacular view of the Rolleston range and the Canterbury plains. We stopped for a while, then moved on.

View from the mountain top and the way down. You can see how gloomy was it out at the top yesterday. The path forward got lost in the mist.

The couple that Mou and Maurine met earlier told them that as we would go past the mountain top, we would reach a flat area with a signpost that would indicate that we shold go down the right hand side of the track and we should keep going, choosing the “right right way” (see the image above). We had no idea at the moment what it was or how long we had to walk. This was our first trip to Mount Richardson. The route looked flat and went through a bush.



It was an arduous walk downwards for three more hours. The first part of the downhill walk was flat indeed, but soon it became rough and quite steep with loose rocks and gravel, and slippery slopes. Our feet were tired by then from the long walk all day. As I walked with tired numbed feet, words of Thich Nhat Thanh in Peace at Every step came to mind, to tread on the earth is the real miracle.

I focused on the breath, the in-breath and the out-breath. I relaxed and tried to lose myself in the flow of the journey. I tried to feel every little gravel beneath my feet as I pressed on. I slipped and fell, and rose. And fell again. Moved on. I had to reach home. We had to reach home. The three of us. A team, a bondage. A promise that we were in it together.

Unfortunately, the NZ DOC did not really maintain this part of the track. I’d say it was challenging for young children, then again at the end of a long journey for over five hours now. By now evening was closing in, daylight faded, and we wondered if we should have taken the other route. After three hours of long, challenging downward journey, we finally reached a point of a green and yellow signboard — the first in a long long way in the trek since the one near the mountain top. The heart leaped in joy at its sight. Here was hope.

The signboard said that the carpark, our destination was just another hour and a half away.

No way.

You’d know it had to be wrong. It was an underestimation.

For us at that point, it would be at least another couple of hours of walk. It was getting dark, the orange triangles in the black beech trees in a dark gloomy forest when evening closed in added an eerie contrast of hope and despair. In that challenging hour of absolute wilderness, we wondered if we had done the right thing in starting out that late in the day. There was no place to stop; no place to rest. We sidled down a narrow track along a steep slope by the side, so our ony option was to walk. We carried on.

The signpost of hope and the expression in the eyes of the child says it all.

After another two hours of steady downward walk, we finally reached the carpark we started from. At that point, we knew we had scaled a mountain and made it to the carpark. The kid wanted to have a cup of hot chocolate when we would reach the nearest town.

We nodded. We would. If only the coffee shop at the nearest town would still remain open. The engine in the car purred to life and we left the silent, dark mountain and the forest behind. Sure enough, the couple of coffee shops in Oxford had already closed. The child was tired in the backseat. We longed to be home.

The smoothness of a slope is not necessarily the best factor for going downhill. Sometimes, it doesn’t matter.

The brochures and websites about Mount Richardson track were conflicting. You couldn’t trust. Some said you could do the track easily and others would tell you would need three to four hours one way. Thanks to New Zealand’s Department of Conservation maintenance, and fallen logs strewn across the track at various points, and need to jump or climb over fallen trees, traversing a thousand and fifty metres rise, I’d say is not for the feeble of heart. I am sure that on a sunny day we would be rewarded with a spectacular view, but not on a gloomy day like today.

If we were to do it again:

  • We’d take the route from the Glentui carpark area and sidle up the route towards the Glentui waterfall and come down the same track. Never again we’d take the “easy” but long track beyond the summit. Not worth it.
  • I’d never again trust the times posted by the NZ Department of Conservation about destination. Never. Multiply the timings by a factor of 1.5 to 2 depending on your speed. I think they are written for world class mountaineers and ultramarathoners, not for people with family who are out there to take a day’s trek in the mountains. I’d take it easy and have plenty of time on my hand to take the trip. Start really early.
  • I’d go easy, relax, and take in the view of he the dark and dense beech forest on the way. It was beautiful out there. Truly beautiful. I’d tread silently and softly and mix with the beautiful birds. I’d take in the beauty of walking through a forest up the hills as the sound of mountain streams and bird calls defined the soundscape of the hills. What a feast for the senses.
  • Lastly, I’d choose a sunny day for some breathtaking view from the mountain top.

Another day, another time.

Associate Professor of Epidemiology and Environmental Health at the University of Canterbury, New Zealand. Also in:

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