On the steep, steep side of Ben Lohhhhhhh-mond

Let’s all sing along: Twas there that we parted, in yon shady glen, on the steep, steep side of Ben Lomond…. Ohhhhh, ye’ll take the high road, and I’ll take the low, and I’ll be in Scotland afore ye….

Yes, I had that song stuck in my head as I climbed Ben Lomond. The Ben Lomond on New Zealand’s South Island, anyway. Still haven’t done the one in Scotland.

I didn’t intend to do Ben Lomond yesterday. I planned to take a long but allegedly easy trail to the old gold rush ghost town of Macetown. On the way, however, I stopped in town (as opposed to where I live, Beyond the Sticks) for my weekly treat at Starbucks. Fueled by almond-scented caffeine, I decided I wanted a bigger challenge than Macetown and thought I’d ask about Ben Lomond, described in a couple of my guidebooks as a serious, all-day hike. The DOC office in town is, as ever, completely useless. It’s staffed (at least every time I’ve been there) by people who do not speak English* and who, even worse, have never hiked any of the trails, done any of the day walks or apparently set foot outside the DOC office.

(*No, I’m not racist or xenophobic or whatever. But it’s frustrating to be in a country where English is the predominant language and to go to an *information* office where people can only give you information if you speak Japanese or Korean.)

If you ask a simple question (“how many kilometers is this trail? are there river crossings? where is the nearest carpark to the trailhead?”) you get either a polite but blank smile or they simply repeat whatever scant, lousy information is printed in the DOC pamphlets. Every time I’ve asked “have you done this trail?” they smile and shake their heads “no.” It’s as if their job is solely to tell Asian tourists where the nearest souvenir store is. And this is the DOC office, Department of Conservation, the folks who are supposed to be promoting the experience of New Zealand nature. Sigh.

I went to the I-Site, which is the general tourist information center, and asked the woman there if she knew anything about Ben Lomond. Well, happy day, she’d done it herself and told me where the carpark was, drew a map, etc. When I asked if it was as “challenging” and “formidable” as it had been described, she shrugged and said “It’s very steep, then flat, then very steep again.”

She should work for DOC. Their usefulness would go up 1000 percent.

Although, having done Ben Lomond, I would amend her description to “it’s very steep, then it’s not so steep, then it’s very steep again.”

I was waiting for the “flat” part. Still waiting. The whole thing is uphill to the summit of 1746 meters (less than 6000 feet), with the only truly level portion (I was looking for it) a 10 meter (33 feet) stretch about halfway to the saddle. But no complaints… despite all the hype, I thought it was much easier and more scenic than Mount Alfred. Without rushing, and with a half-hour stop at the summit, it took me about five hours, which is well under the “full-day” or “6-8 hours” it’s variously described as needing.

The trail started along an emergency access road (always a good sign) that leads to a tourist gondola, then branched off into a fantastic-smelling Douglas fir forest before heading above bushline into alpine scrub and tussock grass.

It was there that I had my wildlife encounters of the day, first with a family of big, beautiful, strikingly-colored feral goats and then with a rather large (half the length of my little finger) alpine grasshopper. A few hundreds meters above bushline, the trail went along a ridge, onward to the Ben Lomond Saddle. I guess this was technically the “flat” part. From the saddle, it was an hour of moderately hard work up a rocky, fairly steep, scree-littered trail.

The reward at the summit was views that stretched forever in every direction, south to the Remarkables (actual mountain range name) and south arm of Lake Wakatipu, east to the Cardrona range and a glimpse of Skippers Canyon, west to the Richardson and Humboldt ranges and the north arm of Wakatipu, and north to Mt Earnslaw, Mt. Aspiring and the Southern Alps. The weather was perfect: clear but with high clouds to keep most of the sun out of my eyes (and off my skin) and
a light breeze that only got nippy right at the summit.

Guess I took the high road to bonnie Ben Lomond.

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