My friend Arnaud lives by a strict code of Parisian order and, at times, the world can be quite black and white for him. However, the other day he was feeling rather whimsical. Having only hiked the one “mandatory” trek in town (the one leading to the glacier), Arnaud wanted to try another trail and, in an uncharacteristically impulsive maneuver, pointed to the longest one on our map.
Not only was the Alex Knob Trek long (listed as a day trek at 8 hours), but the starting point for the trail was well over an hour by foot from our home. That brought the grand total up to 10 hours and, as it turned out, we both slept in. Starting our hike at 11:00 am, we were already racing against the clock to make it back before dark.
After a quick stop at the “supermarket” in town, the contents of my unnecessarily large backpack included various layers of clothing, four muesli bars, two bottles of water, some pita bread, two French baguette, and a small tub of humus. Much of the bread was used to feed the amused birds on our lunch break. As you can imagine, we were famished by the time we arrived home.
We agreed to share the responsibilities of carrying the bulky backpack to the top of the mountain, but I soon came to realize that on this outing I would be acting as both sherpa and motivational speaker.
Heading out-of-town, we passed the historic St James Anglican Church, which could not have had a better view of our day’s path.
The trailhead for Alex Knob lies towards the end of the Glacier Access Road. We turned off the road in good spirits and headed into the rainforest towards our first stop at Lake Wombat.
After this short detour, we continued upwards through the rainforest until we reached our first westward views of the cow pastures on the southern fringe of Franz Josef.
Thick trees, wrapped in vine and draped in moss, lined the path while the sun’s reflection danced off pools of water resting in cupped ferns.
Upon arriving at our first glacier viewpoint, we stopped for lunch and watched the clouds flow into the valley. Arnaud ate his baguette, I ate my humus, and the birds ate the scraps. A German hiker passed, smiled, and livened our spirits when he said, “just 45 more minutes to the top!”
I think we misunderstood him.
Arnaud had not worn the proper shoes for our outing and, as a result, was lagging behind on the wet, rocky path. In true form, he was hiking in fashionable iridescent Nike sneakers, the same ones he removes from a shoe bag each day to walk home from work.
Arnaud owns three bags specifically designed for carrying shoes. I, on the other hand, have three pairs of shoes.
The rainforest gave way to sub-alpine terrain as we continued upwards into the clouds. The views were superb, and every turn felt like it might be the top, but 45 minutes came and went we would not reach the top for two more hours.
Looking westward, we watched the Waiho River winds it’s way to the Tasman Sea just below the horizon.
To the north, sat the small township of Franz Josef and the ruby-red rooftop of my apartment in the abandoned motel a kilometer out-of-town. Lake Mapourika, the largest lake in the Westland, lay nestled in the foothills.
The distance between Arnaud and I grew exponentially throughout the hike. As I approached the summit, I heard his faint, exhausted calls from below. I had promised him that the top was just around the corner far too many times to win his trust, but finally, it was the truth.
The wind whipped around the top of Alex Knob as a light rain dampened my clothes. I waited in the cold as the small black dot in the distance transformed into a mopey Frenchman. Arnaud looked miserable, but his stubbornness would not allow him to give in. When I dared to ask how he was, he exhaled, “tired… But fantastic!”
It was 4:00 and we had made it to the top of Alex Knob. Cold and wet, we watched as the sun peeked through the clouds, illuminating the red rooftop of our faraway home. I knew that the next day Arnaud, with great hyperbole, would tell the world of his vast feet (failing to mention his trusty sherpa)… but for now, he could not move his legs.
“We have to go”
“Five more minutes”
“Arnaud! This is only half way. We have five more hours ahead of us.”
Slowly, silently, he arose, and we began the long journey home.