The road takes you past Kyeburn diggings, an area scarred by gold sluicing operations. I parked my vehicle at the end of Buster road and packed my bike for a couple of nights in a hut up at the Mt Buster diggings. Since it was winter and because I had a late start in the day, I decided to pack a tent – a decision I’m glad I made.
The ride up Buster road turned into a real slog, partly because it’s quite steep, but mostly because of the snow and ice. Most of the trip up was a slow, hard push. I felt like Scott of the Antarctic, trudging into the blizzard, pulling his sled. My physical trainer makes me push a heavy sled at the gym, something I never relish but I spent much of the way up silently blessing her for all the hard work she made me do.
Occasionally I’d meet a portion of the road so thick with ice I had to carry or throw myself and the bike around it, making for a very physical climb. The weather was calm and clear, but as the afternoon wore on, it got colder.
Three hours later, I reached Mt Buster and the plateau that Buster Hut sits on. I was exhausted and darkness was falling. I knew the hut was about 700m away, through some barren diggings along the track to Mt Kyeburn but the odds of finding it were zero in the gathering gloom and now subzero temperature. This was no time for taking pictures. I got out my head torch, unloaded the bike and started looking for a flat place to pitch the tent. Not easy. There was the snow covered road, and then there was rugged, humpy tussock land. After a very motivated search, the road was starting to look like the best option but one last sweep of the headlamp revealed a tent-sized snowy platform in the side of a bank.
Last year I bought a Zempire Atom single person tent. It weighs about 1.7 kg so is perfect for those trips where you’re not sure there’ll be a hut bed. I blessed its makers, along with my personal trainer some more. Her name is Kylie and she can make you into a terminator if you submit to her. I have her number, you can have it.
Tent erect, I unpacked all my clothing. A thermal top, parka and cycle leggings had kept me warm enough during my exertions, but now I’d stopped, I needed everything on. Feet: socks, waterproof oversocks, fleece booties, then neoprene cycling overshoes. Legs: lycra shorts liner, cycle leggings, fleece pants. Top: long sleeve thermal top, silky t shirt, merino long sleeve top, down jacket. Head: Merino beanie, merino hoodie, fleece hat.
Then I got into my sleeping bag. The Thermarest mat was doing a pretty good job of insulating me from the snow but for good measure I put my remaining bags and parka between it and the tent groundsheet. My feet were still cold, and I was thinking it might not be a comfortable night but I’d definitely survive. By the time I got a coffee and a hot meal on board, I was feeling toasty. It was a clear, freezing night and although my plan was to do some astrophotography, I settled for relative warmth and watching the sparkling of my breath as it froze on the tent fly.
So there I was. Painfully fatigued, alone in the hills on a lethally cold night with just enough gear and food to sustain me.
I was having the time of my life.
Dawn. Coffee. I was in no mood to muck about despite the beautiful clear morning. I repacked my gear, shook the ice from the tent fly and stowed it all on my frozen bike. 100m into the diggings I decided to park the bike and head to the hut on foot. The way was reasonably obvious, but I just wanted to know I wasn’t going to waste my time pushing it through the diggings to end up in a blind gully or something.
20 minutes later, I was rewarded with the beautiful sight of the Mt Buster Hilton.
Officially, it’s not even a DoC hut. It’s designated as a shelter. That means it comes with no insulation, no mattress and water was 200m away in a frozen stream downhill. The good news is DoC charges nothing for this accommodation, but it felt like the Hilton, especially because sitting in the direct sun, it was a cozy 10 degrees celsius inside. I went back for the bike and made the place home.
The snow being deeper than I’d anticipated, the walking shoes I’d brought got thoroughly wet, which was quite a disincentive to photowalking, but the location and spectacular day made frozen feet bearable. I’d bought a new 20 megapixel Canon M50 mirrorless for a lightweight adventure camera to use in addition to my GoPro, so this was the time to justify my purchase. The blue and gold of Otago’s provincial colours were on magnificent display in the low winter light.
Old water races built to sluice the gold made for great compositional leading lines.
The snow and tussocks also made for some great photographic studies.
And as the sun got lower, the light on the hills just got better. I was loving it.
But then it got colder. Really cold. As the sun set, I enjoyed another hot meal and watched the temperature go from 10 to minus 1. When my water started freezing in its bladder the actual numbers no longer interested me. Two pairs of wet shoes put my astrophotography and the possibility of a spectacular aurora past contemplation. It would have been easy to sit in my sleeping bag, open the door, pop my tripod on the step and close the door during a 30 second exposure, but every opening of the door saw the temperature plummet inside. I’d bagged some good shots. A long, comfortable sleep seemed like a much better option.
Next morning, high cloud and a breeze signaled warmer but deteriorating weather conditions. After a hearty bowl of Harraways flavoured Oats and a cup of coffee, I packed, put on my frozen walking shoes (after beating them back into flexibility) and rode/walked by bike back down the snowy road.
What an adventure. It felt good to push myself to exhaustion, to really face the cold, to find comfort in barren surroundings and capture some of nature’s immense, cold beauty. At the bottom of the hill, I paused to remove some layers and eat lunch at the former Kokonga rail shed, now positioned at the foot of Mt Buster and used as a musterer’s hut. A convenient convenience was also nearby.
As you can see, I was already starting to think about what I’d learned, and how I was going to top this one.