Marc was Dutch, from Rotterdam, and I really wonder what someone who comes from just about the flattest country in the world thinks he was doing climbing mountains and walking outrageously hilly tracks for fun. However, I am grateful to him because he got me up there when I would have considered that I had had enough and turned back, and regretted it ever after. Apart from anything else I wanted to do this walk as a tribute to Misao who was the inspiration for this act of abject stupidity (that I am really proud of). Misao actually walked the eighteen kilometres from Wanaka to the start of the track, did the loop and then walked all the way back and, although she then moved on to areas and pastures new, and I know not where, I was so taken with her feat that I decided I must emulate it, at least in part.
I decided to hire a car. When I went to collect it on Monday morning the weather had deteriorated and I wondered whether my timing was again awry. Lex Cameron at Adventure Rentals blamed me for the change in the weather; I had told him that I intended travelling further afield and needed transport to do so. Having dealt with the business end of things he gave me the keys to the Mazda Something, AUR509, hereafter affectionately known as 509, and I was ready for the open road. I started 509, put it in gear and, of course, I stalled it. Lex was back in his office by then and, to give him credit, he didn’t look up though I expect he smirked inside. The second attempt at hitting the open road was more successful and I lurched out of the yard onto Ardmore Street.
My first port of call was the Bits and Bytes, I could have walked, I would have walked, it’s not very far away from Mountain View, but it was raining and I had a car. That little job done I returned to discuss plans for the day with Marc, who had surfaced by then. A couple of days before, I had mentioned that I was going to be hiring a car and Marc had asked me what I intended doing. I told him that I was hoping to visit Diamond Lake and he replied saying that that was something he also wanted to do but had no transport to get there. All the guides suggest that this walk is risky if attempted alone by a complete novice like me, so here was my chance of a buddy.
Marc, in the light of the weather conditions and with the possibility of it clearing later, decided that he would sort out his transport back to Christchurch for the following day and I decided that I would take the opportunity to drive over the Crown Range to Arrowtown via Cardrona. It is ironic, in an Alpine Resort town that I managed to hire the only car that didn’t like hills. However, I coaxed 509 through its shortcomings, just as I would be facing my own later in the day, by swearing a lot.
Back at Mountain View a few hours later we decided that it was now or never and that we should at least take a drive out to the start of the track to see what the weather was doing there. When the weather is as changeable as it was today in these parts, the people five kilometres up the road can be having a very different day to the one you are experiencing. It didn’t take long to get there; just a short drive on the Mount Aspiring road past Glendhu Bay, with its horrendous looking motor camp, and then a small yellow sign announced the Diamond Lake Track on the right hand side of the road.
We pulled into the small car park. There were a few other vehicles there, so we were not alone in our potential recklessness. It was quite windy but sunny as we took the first steps along the track towards the lake itself. As this track was on private land and not funded for its upkeep by the DoC there was a request for a two-dollar donation to keep it maintained. I decided to hold off doing that until the return journey, if it was worth it. We walked through an area that reminded me so much of home, willow trees in boggy ground with rushes growing, not unlike the Somerset Levels that I grew up in, that is if you didn’t look up at the surrounding mountains.
This steady, easy climb led us to the banks of Diamond Lake itself. Compared to the likes of Lakes Wanaka and Hawea, Diamond Lake is a puddle. It lies part way up a mountain and its shores are lined with reeds and willows, it is not the amazing iridescent blue of its near neighbours but it has a dark beauty and charm simply because of those differences. To this day I am still puzzling why it is called Diamond Lake; not from its shape or the crystal clear waters it doesn’t have.
The path followed the shoreline for a while before suddenly deciding that it had to go up, very steeply. Despite certain misgivings I had to go up with it. It soon ducked into a wooded area, which included enormous yet delicate fuchsias with their peeling, brown paper-like bark.
At times, because of the weather it seemed that we were climbing a stream bed with trickles and occasional cascades of water going in the direction I was more interested in; down the mountain. It did not take long for us both to be soaked even though we were wearing waterproofs. On some of the steepest sections of the path wooden slats had been put in; probably to do two jobs, the first to aid the climber and the second to hold the actual track together. Every so often we would come up against huge boulders, some as big as houses, and rocks that had tumbled down the mountain in times gone by and the path would find a way over or around them but would always then continue ever upwards.
By now I was having to stop every once in a while to catch my breath and rest. Marc was very good and would wait for me just ahead and then move on when I did. Eventually we reached the point on this, roughly, figure-of-eight shaped track, at which the path first diverged. We decided on the arm we would take and carried on through a similar landscape of narrow rocky paths, damp woodland and occasional tussock grass clearings. When we reached the next plateau, where the path diverged again, I felt that I had had enough. The wind was blowing fiercely; I was wet and totally knackered. Marc waited for me to catch my breath again before I could tell him that he was more than welcome to carry on and that I would wait for him, lying on the nice little comfortable patch of grass I had found. He was having none of it. He told me that I could make it, that I would regret it ever after if I did not continue and that I was letting Misao down as well. That did it. I told him that he could go ahead if he wished and that I would continue at my own pace, but that I would get there. He moved off, knowing he had done a good job of pulling me back together.
This next section was probably less steep but the path was even narrower, down to less than a foot in width with a drop of I don’t know how far should the slightest mistake be made. I began to flag again and sat on a rock. Marc disappeared round a bend. Coming towards me from below were a pair of young women. We exchanged greetings when they reached me and the second of them, in an accent I could not pick, told me that it was not a race, that I should take my time and that I would get there. As she moved away again to follow her companion she called back saying, “Remember, it is not a race, a challenge, yes, but not a race, see you at the top”. Luckily my muttered reply was lost in the wind, but I was motivated to carry on.
A few metres from the 775 metre summit Marc was waiting for me. We stood for a while gazing at the view of where Mount Aspiring would have been seen if it hadn’t been for the cloud obscuring it. Then we just turned together and headed along the final stretch to the top. Almost before I realised it I was standing next to the cairn that had been built there, the flags and bunting blowing noisily in the teeth of the gale. The young women were nowhere to be seen. Marc said that he felt we should not stay long because it was about to pour with rain again and the cloud was descending rapidly. We both took a few photographs of the stunning view of Lake Wanaka and I just had to stand and admire the beauty of what I was seeing. My companion tapped me on the shoulder and suggested we get out of there fast, so we did; after all, why should I argue, he was pointing his finger downwards for once, but probably only because he couldn’t take me up any more.
A few seconds later we were back in the lee of the mountain and it felt as if we had never been there at all. The path down was easy. As luck would have it we had chosen the best paths each time and the ones we were now descending were much steeper than those we had taken up the mountain and would have made it a much more difficult climb. We soon caught up with the two young woman, all four of us joyful now at our achievements. They were finding it difficult going and we went on ahead. I really enjoyed the journey back down the mountain, for me it was effortless and I was almost at a run by the time we found ourselves back beside Diamond Lake. We were both very exuberant about the thing we had just accomplished. For Marc it was an easy wind down after months of hard tracks; for me it was one of the toughest things I had ever done and I had four people to thank, Marc, Misao and the two women whose names I will never know. Without their help and inspiration I would have turned back and because of them, I didn’t. Thanks.
As I passed the little donation box beside the path I fished a five-dollar note out of my pocket and pushed it through the slot, somehow two dollars wasn’t enough to pay for the agony and ecstasy I had been through. Back near the car park Marc asked a Kiwi lady if she would be kind enough to take our picture together with each of our cameras. The moment had to be commemorated in some way. In all the publications I have read that mention this walk it is described as moderate; as I made my way back to 509 I began to understand that this word was obviously being used in just the same way as many a dictator is often described as 'Moderate'.
Half an hour later we were back at Mountain View, beer bottles in respective hands basking in the euphoria of what we had accomplished. I suggested that we have an Indian take-away as a celebratory meal. We walked to the Indian restaurant around the corner and Marc asked me to order because he was not used to Indian food and didn’t know what things were. I had decided very quickly and went for a Rajma Daal; I then asked Marc what meat he would like. He said he would go for lamb rather than chicken so, knowing a little about the Dutch diet I suggested Kashmiri Lamb Koftas, described on the menu as ‘Balls of lamb, mince and potato. Fried and cooked in a spicy tomato Sauce (sic)’. Marc looked at me very hard and said, ‘I’m not eating lamb balls, man.’ It took me a little time to realise what he thought it had meant. The waiter suddenly fell about laughing as I explained to Marc that it was meat-balls and not testicles. He went for the Korma in the end.