Cecile gets lost near Arthurs Pass

CECILE MEIER
Last updated 05:00 20/12/2013

I've hiked in many countries, but my first tramp started at the base of a steep hill near Arthurs Pass.

Looking at the pristine summer sky and hefting my alarmingly heavy backpack, I told Nick I was going to leave my down and rain jackets in the car.

''Nooo! Are you nuts?'' he said.

''Why, it's a hot day,'' I said, shrugging.

Nick explained that while devoid of wolves, snakes and bears, New Zealand regularly killed unprepared tourists with its moody weather.

So off we slogged up the hill, carrying multiple layers of clothes. After three hours, we broke out of the dark forest to Kelly Range's tussocky peaks. The grass was as bright as fresh snow in the sun.

Two more hours of my asking how much further it was, and we arrived at our campsite for the night - a gentle hill decorated with three little mountain lakes.

We stayed up, watching the huge sky until stars appeared. The temperature dropped and I was pleased to have my down jacket, though obviously my rain jacket was completely unnecessary. We counted a few shooting stars and retreated to the tent.

We awoke to an eerie light filling the tent. I unzipped the tent to a sea of fog. The mountains, the three little lakes, the grass, the tussock - it had all disappeared.

The cold, damp air and the heavy sky promised rain. Birds had fallen silent. I checked my cell phone: no reception. I began to worry, but Nick was optimistic.

''I know the way back,'' he said.

After 15 minutes trekking uphill through mist-soaked tussock, Nick took out the map and frowned.

''Hmm, I see where we are,'' he lied.

Another 15 minutes and the map was out again. We had eaten our last cereal bar for breakfast and I was getting hungry. My legs were sore from the previous day's effort.

''Are you sure you know the way?'' I asked, trying not too panic.

''Yes,'' Nick said, radiating fake confidence.

I remembered Nick's tales of lost tourists dying in the mountains after a rainfall.

I wasn't used to this style of hiking. In Switzerland, wherever there's a mountain, there's a gondola to take you to the top.

Wilderness camping is not allowed. Comfortable refuges wait for you at the end of your hike, where you will be served fondue and hot wine.

''We're lost and we have no food left and it's going to rain and we're going to die of hypothermia,'' I said, and I started crying.

Between trying to reassure me and looking at the map, Nick reached some eureka moment.

''Ahh! We just have to go downhill a bit.''

I was sure we were going to die and figured it didn't matter how, so I followed. Five minutes of descent, and Nick was dancing around a track marker crowing victory.

A little further and we broke out of the fog. I lived to tramp another day, though my legs reminded me of the descent for another week.

Despite the fright, I loved being so close to the trees, the birds, the clouds, and the Milky Way.

I will go again, but next time I will pack several jackets and one more box of cereal bars, and I will try not to panic when the weather changes.

Nick suggests I also take some ''harden up'' pills.

- The Press

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