Heaphy Track: Foodies on foot

By Victoria Bartle

After a hard day's hike, there's nothing better than a gourmet meal, writes Victoria Bartle.

The Heaphy Track is even better when someone else does the cooking. Photo / Wairarapa Times-Age
The Heaphy Track is even better when someone else does the cooking. Photo / Wairarapa Times-Age

I confess it: I broke the rule on which a best-selling self-help book was written: I sweated the small stuff.

Over five days and with seven other adults, I'd walked the 82km stretch that is the ever-changing landscape of the South Island's Heaphy Track - and loved every minute of it; not a care in the wilderness.

My worrying began once I was home again with the luxuries people tend to take for granted: the shower, the washing machine, and well-stocked drawers of undies and socks.

That's when my thoughts turned to my Heaphy Track guides, their socks and their "smalls". I know it's inappropriate to concern myself with other people's socks and knickers, but I challenge any hiker to watch what comes out of the packs carried by Heaphy Track guide Ryan Kelly and his staff over five days in the wilderness.

Anyone would puzzle over their personal garment supply, pondering just exactly where they could keep it and whether it's been seriously rationed, forced out by everything else they have to carry.

Kelly's guided walks of the Heaphy Track are like no other. Unlike his guests' comparatively small packs, his is not stuffed full from his wardrobe, but precisely packed from his pantry. It would be a fantastic gastronomic find for the famished - if only they could lift it.

When Kelly "goes gourmet' and takes half-a-dozen post-hike hungry adults with him his pack - and that of his second guide - weighs about 30kg. From its compartments he pulls out an astonishing array of fare, carefully matched with wines from the nearby Nelson region.

On our trip there's enough to feed eight people over five days - breakfasts, lunches and dinners. Over the whole journey, whether it's tender lamb, a fat capsicum, soft cheeses, perky lettuce leaves or crisp broccoli, not one item is flattened, bruised or wilted.

Food freshness is so paramount in Kelly's business that he has premium salmon steaks delivered on ice to the Department of Conservation hut where we stay on the fourth night. On every five-day walk another member of his staff walks in from the other end of the track bearing the salmon, vegetables and other supplies needed for the final day.

Kelly, 30, has been guiding hikers on the best-known of New Zealand's great walks, and in Australia's Kakadu National Park, all his adult life. Settling in Nelson several years ago, he was determined to combine his love of cuisine with going bush, despite the absence of refrigeration in the Department of Conservation huts.

His secret weapon became a vacuum-packer to put protective cushions of air around the supplies, combined with precise calculation of exactly how much food to take.

Although Ryan's clients are happy enough to doss down in huts and bathe in icy mountain-fed rivers, they are ready to pay for fine food and not to have to cook - or carry - it.

"I want to spoil people, so much so that they remember this walk as the best they've done," Kelly says.

"After a long day of hiking I want everyone to sit down knowing some pretty delicious food is about to be put in front of them."

In a briefing the night before our trek begins, we're told that any offers to help with the dishes after each meal will be politely declined. We are also told waste in the wilderness is not cool and that scraps must not be left out for the wildlife.

The rule in National Parks is to leave nothing behind but your boot-prints and take nothing with you but photographs. So on Kelly's trips the hut kitchens are wonderfully out of bounds.

The guides will take care of everything - even the polite negotiations with other hut-users as to the schedule for the gas stove and bench-space.

There's nothing for us to do each evening but watch the sunsets, paddle or swim in mountain streams, sup wine, play games, drink properly brewed coffee and share handmade truffles from Nelson-based confectioner Kerstiens.

The only time we see anything culinary that's been freeze-dried or foiled-packed is on the plates of other hikers we meet in the huts.

There were one or two awkward moments, for which Kelly has to take the blame.

Gathering around the table with hikers from throughout the world, it was easy to feel a twinge of guilt - especially the night we feasted on tender lamb with steamed green vegetables and the plunger coffee was melting the fudge-truffles in our mouths.

Two Australian hiker mates were sharing the hut with us that night; likeable guys who told us they leave their wives at home every summer while they tick off another well-known hiking track. We listened to their exploits, some of our group sipping plunger coffee and merlot.

Our nightly treat of fat truffles were sliced up on a platter. While the lads sat at one end of the dining table, spooning unidentifiable stew into their mouths from battered aluminium bowls. It was a curry, they said. They had no dessert.

So I slipped them a couple of truffle slices.

NEED TO KNOW

Tours: Contact Southern Wilderness' Ryan Kelly on 0800 666 044 (NZ only) or (03) 546 7349.

Post-tramp accommodation: The final night of this Gourmet Guided Walk is spent in relative luxury - at the Nelson Lakes in St Arnaud Lodge, where you'll be more than ready for a hot shower and a real bed with sheets. Breakfasts are included before you're driven back to Nelson - about 90 minutes' drive away.

- Herald on Sunday

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