The drive to the Cobb Valley is always an adventure in itself. The road is narrow, winding its way in the deep valley, at times hanging vertiginously above the river under some sheer cliffs: nothing better to put me in the mood for wildness and adventure.
It was Sunday, and Balloon Hut was my destination.
I shouldered my pack, heavy with three days of food (which in my case often means six) and my complete camera gear. A low ceiling of clouds gripped the top of the surroundings hills. There was no wind. The colours seemed dull. As I started walking in this lackluster atmosphere, I suddenly realized I was heading in the mountains, alone, and for three days. I stopped, took a deep breath and smiled. I had been needing that for a long time.
The track was well maintained and well marked, climbing the 600m of elevation to the Cobb Ridge in a succession of long, tidy switchbacks. A real luxury in terms of kiwi hiking standards.
The forest was silent and peaceful, unlike my mind. I felt encumbered by my pack, and frustrated to find myself huffing and puffing despite the easy trail. It was only when I reached the treeline and entered the clouds that my mind started to quite down, as if hushed by the misty surroundings.
The track went down again, and sidled on the other side of the ridge, offering views of the valley below, the Deep Creek River meandering through a dark blanket of trees. The sound of some waterfall filled the air as I approched a band of higher, hilly terrain forming the rim of the basin that holds Lake Peel. A harrier hawk circled a few times behind me, just under the clouds.
As expected, the lake appeared as I cleared the ridge. A small and dark disc, perfectly still. On the far side, some cliffs rose up to some unknown heights. I sat down and had lunch, envelopped in a profound and meditative silence. The wind caressed at times the surface of the lake, breaking the calm mirror in a series of quick ripples. A small part of the lake was frozen, some shards of ice protruding like scattered crystal daggers.
As I started walking again, the wind picked up and the clouds thickened. Thin snowflakes started falling, hovering around me as if uncertain about touching the ground. On the top of the ridge which descends towards Balloon Hut, the snowflakes didn't seem hesitant anymore, gathering on the track, a white line through the golden tussock. The only sounds were of my footsteps, the whisper of the wind and the tapping of the snowflakes against my jacket. Balloon Hut appeared in the distance, tucked in the trees: a promise of warmth and shelter. Four people were already in the hut. Here the cold and velvety silence was kept outside the door by games and laughters and conversations (in which I didn't take much part, feeling rather unsocial).
It snowed all afternoon, all night, and all day the next day. My plans for the Monday were to hike up Mt Peel and Mt Mytton and go back to the hut, but the constant snowfall and the poor visibility (and my non-adapted footwear for snow!) kept me from venturing outside for too long.
The four hikers left around 9am. The place was filled with a sudden, heavy silence, almost unnerving by its abruptness. But it took me just a few minutes to realized my luck: I was going to spend the day alone, reading a good book by the fire, watching one of the most enchanting spectacle of Nature. The quietness of the place grew then into a contemplative, almost spiritual silence.
It finally stopped snowing as darkness fell. The sky cleared up in the evening, the glow of the moon reflected on the glistening snow.
On Tuesday morning, I cooked myself a hearty breakfast of oats and a hot cup of tea. I emptied the ashes of the fireplace, pushed the benches under the tables, swept the floor of the hut, and propped the matresses up.
Then at 6.15am, I closed the door behind me and headed into the darkness.
It was pitch black. The moon had set a long time ago, leaving the kingdom of the sky to the stars only. It was utterly silent, the only sound the creaking of the snow under my feet. The beam of my headlamp shone just a few meters in front of me, the light diffused on the crystalline snow around. The trail was at times completely indiscernible, at other times appearing as a hollowed line in the ocean of whiteness.
The going was slow and tough. At every step, my foot broke the frozen crust of snow before sinking thirty centimeters below it. I walked a few times into some deeper holes between clumps of tussock, leaving me sprawled on the ground with snow up to my thighs. I was hot and sweaty despite the biting cold air. Every fifty meters or so, an orange pole materialized out of the darkness, indicating that I was on the right path.
I stopped often, turning my headlamp off to watched the stars.
Soon, the whiteness of the ground and the glow in the eastern sky were enough to see where I walked. The next time I looked up, I was left speechless. Suddenly, the mountains all around me were visible, imposing dark silhouettes with silver crowns against a dark blue sky full of stars. I stood there, wide-eyed, half-stunned by the sheer beauty of what surrounded me. The perfect combination of the raw, impressive power of Nature mixed with some sort of refined subtleness, almost magical.
I followed the ridge and stopped as soon as Lake Peel came into view. The sunrise was very close.
The snow gave another dimension to the mountains. To the East, Deep Creek Valley was a dark cleavage below the snowy Cobb ridge, stretching towards the familiar shapes of Hoary Head, Mt Crusader, Mt McMahon and Lodestone. To the South, the ridge I came up from Balloon Hut dropped into a sea of clouds, and beyond that lay the massive bulk of Wharepapa Range with the remarkable Mt Arthur and the distinctive Twins. Behind me to the West was Tarn Creek Valley and a snowy ridge line which lead to Mt Peel, with the lake tucked under it.
The sun came up, painting of his orange glow the immaculate white coat. I left a messy pattern of footsteps on the untouched snow while taking pictures and felt a pang of guilt for spoiling such a pristine place.
In that immense, frozen silence, I almost didn't dare breathe.
I resumed walking when the cold demanded it. First to the lake, still in the shade behind the steep Cobb Ridge, and then up the sidle to the top. The going was laborious, the track there at times a waist deep trench filled with snow.
When I finally cleared the top, I was greeted by the view over the long Cobb Reservoir. I walked down into the forest. The temperature was noticeably warmer, the snow melting from the trees in a cold rain, droplets shimmering in the sun. It was as if I was walking in a forest of diamonds.
Down there, the still silence from the world of snow was replaced by the lively singing of the streams and the birds. Both places with a different energy, but just as peaceful.
I was glad that for a few days, I escaped the agitation and noise of what we call the "real world", to listen to the silence that only Nature could so well offer.