A most welcome alpine experience

A single track mountain-bike trail weaves above the Nevis Valley. Photos: Margaret Batty
A single track mountain-bike trail weaves above the Nevis Valley. Photos: Margaret Batty
Whisky warms the welcome on Margaret Batty's back-country adventure. 

The warning signs were there when we packed. Dehydrated food, sleeping bags and loo roll don't tend to feature in luxury travel supplements. But Welcome Rock offers luxury of the kind that isn't measured by hotel star ratings.

If you navigate by GPS, as an unfortunate couple from Hong Kong once did, then Slate Hut at Welcome Rock is a mere 60km drive from Queenstown airport as the crow flies. However, reality bites when faced with a vertiginous 4WD dirt track, petering out to a narrow mountain bike trail, just to get to the front door of your resting place. A definite no-go for airport rental cars and non bikers/hikers.

Is it worth it ? No question. There can surely be no "hotel" panorama more impressive in the whole of New Zealand. Besides, this might be your once-in-a-lifetime chance to actually rent a private mountain. And at $150 it is a steal, albeit toilet roll and candles not included. Slate Hut "does what it says on the tin" - it is a tin hut with a slate roof, mattress, stove and tap.

Welcome Rock, high on the Slate Mountain Range, was the first sign of home to early settlers. Tom the local farmer keeps a wonderful custom alive to this day. A "Welcome" bottle of whisky is kept hidden by the rock, for any passers-by in need of a tot of warmth to stoke the next stage of their journey.

There can surely be no "hotel" panorama more impressive in the whole of New Zealand.
There can surely be no "hotel" panorama more impressive in the whole of New Zealand.
You can also keep warm by braving the gas-fired outdoor bath, guaranteed to take any city-dweller out of their comfort zone. Sitting naked in a bath in full view of the distant horizon does not come easy to city-folk, for whom privacy means a scrap of space on a train. Look up from the bathtub ... ah, so that is a dark sky! Stars tumbling, lighting up the sharp profile of the mountains that fold back ridge upon ridge, topped with a skerrick of snow.

Easy to imagine you have died and gone to heaven. But no, when you wake in the morning, there's a very real 30km single-track mountain bike trail to confront. Farmer Tom and his mates hand-built the "Roaring Lion" trail over two years. It is beguilingly described as "physically easy but technically engaging". Hmm, typical Kiwi understatement ...

The trail weaves above the remote Nevis valley, at one point following a water-race originally engineered by Chinese gold-miners in 1898. It took 30 men three years to hack the path out of the rock face. As I balanced on one cheek between the creek and a steep mountain drop-off, feeling every inch the intrepid pioneer, I couldn't help but wish that they had spent another few months toiling and just made it a little bit wider.

It is clear from the rapturous comments in the visitors book that everybody falls under the spell of Welcome Rock (www.welcomerock.co.nz). And yet what a well-kept secret - almost all local Kiwis. We were the first English signatories.

As we gathered our gear to leave Slate Hut in the morning, we were astonished to see a face peering through the window. Sally, an ultra-endurance runner, was just skipping through. She was the advance party for the 2019 Gold Rush Cavalcade; more than 600 participants were following her on horseback, wagon and bike. They were retracing the steps of the true pioneers over a gruelling week-long trek.

Solitude and peace, so fleeting, so precious. We smiled and made haste to beat the latter-day gold-rush, taking our own priceless memory nuggets with us.

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