Siberia Experience: A Real Kiwi Adventure

If I say to you ‘New Zealand tourism’, you’ll probably think of Queenstown. You may even have heard of Wanaka, just 1 hour north. But have you heard of Makarora or the Siberia Experience? Hint: I’m not talking the ‘stern Russians in beaver-skin hats’ Siberia. Although, boy are there mountains! Welcome to Mt Aspiring National Park!

Makarora - the gateway to Mt Aspiring National Park

We had only heard of this Siberia Experience (flight/ hike/ jet boat) from a colleague after already completing a road trip of New Zealand’s South Island, so when two friends from England came to visit, we made it a ‘must-do’. Staying in Wanaka, you only have to drive 40mins to the tiny town of Makarora where your flight departs from. By tiny I mean one café/ visitor centre, a few cows and a field containing a helicopter and small Cessna. Who would have guessed this quiet unassuming place could be the gateway to the country’s third largest national park.

Taking flight

I won’t lie; I think we all felt a slight well of panic as the door closed on a plane scarcely big enough to accommodate the four of us and our very chilled pilot (Kiwis are a rather relaxed people). Kitted out with headsets and microphones so we could communicate over the roar of the engine, we picked up speed, bouncing across the field until finally we were airborne and the adventure could begin! Pretty sure I left my stomach on the runway.

Mt Aspiring

Oh, what a flight! As we soared over the valley and river we would be jet boating down later, our pilot began pointing out geographical features and the history of the area, steadily gaining height until we levelled out over the forest. Then came the mountains. Snow-capped and glistening in all their morning glory, these giants loomed over our tiny craft expertly manoeuvred to get us as close as safely possible.  I am not a climber nor do I ski, so to be within almost touching distance of the peaks of the famed Southern Alps was both mesmerising and humbling. Awe bought a lump to my throat. But we had a job to do – cameras out, we began the task of trying to capture such raw beauty on film for friends and family back home. Thankfully, the pilot was well-versed in the needs of tourists so did multiple pass-overs of certain spots where he could, especially around Lake Crucible (an impossibly blue chalice carved into the mountain itself) and Mt Aspiring itself (at over 3000m it is flanked by the three largest glaciers in a region of over a hundred). As we broke through a V in the mountain range, we caught a glimpse of the Siberia Valley where we would begin our 3 hour hike to the designated check-point to pick up the jet boat back. Suddenly, the 25min flight didn’t seem long enough.

Crucible Lake

Hiking the valley

As we watched our plane take off, we could feel we were properly in the wilderness now – no buildings, no people and no mobile phone signal. Oh, and we had just been informed we had to cross a river to even get to the start of the hiking track which would have us follow the river, climb the forested flanks of the valley then back down to re-join the river. Apparently this was in the instructions which we had failed to read before departure, so did not have waterproof footwear or a towel between us. And the river came straight from a glacier so you can imagine the temperature into which we had to plunge our toes. Small rocks and pebbles feel like razor blades when combined with water that cold. Once out, you are then numb and rendered incapable of putting your boots back on without help. We had only had one pair of ladies tights (don’t ask) and a microfibre flannel with which to dry ourselves.

Once the feeling returned to our feet, the trek began. The path was clear and studded with small boardwalks to cover uneven ground, which is a good thing as you spend less time looking at your feet than gawping at the scenery. Please do pay some attention though to where you are going – I completely missed a boardwalk and went straight down a ditch flat on my face because I was too busy pointing out a particularly large overhanging rock.  My friends’ panic at the thought of having carry me the rest of the way soon turned to hysterics as they scraped me, surprised but uninjured, off the valley floor. For the rest of the journey I had to inform them of my whereabouts at all times.

I think we met about three people during the whole trek. It was bliss – just us, the birds chirping in the bush around us, the waterfall thundering on the opposite side of the valley, and the river rushing beneath us. The path climbed high into the side of the mountain, but was in no way difficult (only a standard level of fitness is required). However, there are no toilets as you are actually in the middle of nowhere so go beforehand. And maybe bring a snack to enjoy at the highest point so you can dine whilst soaking in views of a seemingly prehistoric valley. I half expected to see a dinosaur if I’m honest. Alas, despite the absence of giant reptiles, the twisted moist bush on our path full of mosses and ferns still had a distinctly Jurassic feel, and no wonder – this is some of the most untouched forest in New Zealand.

Jet boat rendezvous

Jetting back

After a glorious 3 hour hike, we spilled out of the forest onto the gravel beach of the river to await the rumble of the jet boat ready to take us, and those coming behind us, back to civilization. Initially, we were happy to remain in the sun in that valley forever – until the sandflies found us. The little black bastards bite and chase you with a vengeance (take insect repellent!) so we soon retreated to the safety of the jet boat and out into the river. Our guide from Wilkin’s Jets was both informative and cheeky, so there were a lot of fast runs and turns – we all got wet – in amongst learning about the rivers we were on and a little bit of how the boat works. The braided gravel streams of New Zealand’s South Island are perfect for jet boating as the boats are designed to perform well in very shallow, fast-flowing water. Photo opportunities were still possible as we paused often (just hide your camera each time you get moving to avoid it getting doused). Even cows fording the crystal blue stream in front of the mountains seemed a moment worth capturing. Further along the river, the valley opened up and we moved from the Wilkin to the Makarora River which would take us back to Makarora itself, and as the forest turned to fields, you could sense our imminent return to real life.

Optional extra

Not without reluctance did we clamber back onto dry land. But we were not finished yet. The Siberia Experience itself may be over, but there was one more secret Makarora had to share with us. Just ten minutes’ drive along the same river, a very short bush walk from the car park leads you to the Blue Pools, complete with swing bridge and gorge. It may seem obvious, but they are named for a reason – that blue is insane, and you may see trout or native birds like the tomtit we saw. A very fitting end to what we all agreed was probably our best adventure yet!

Blue Pools, Makarora

Tour Information

  • The Siberia Experience includes a 25min flight, 3 hour hike and 30min jet boat ride (allow 4hrs)
  • Price (NZ$) as of Oct 2016 – Sept 2017 adult $375/ child $299
  • Can opt for the extended experience with 50min flight for an extra $100 per person
  • Tour departs usually around 10am from the Makarora Tourist Centre
  • Self-drive 45mins from Wanaka on the West Coast Highway or take a shuttle from Wanaka for an extra $50
  • Take water and suitable clothing – bring waterproof shoes or a change of flip-flops and a towel for the river crossing
  • In warmer months, bring insect repellent and sun screen
  • Don’t forget your camera!

Other options

  • One-way: Flights and jet boats run out of Makarora to Siberia Valley and Kerin Forks (7km from Siberia Hut, 15km from Makarora); flights back can be picked up from both, but jet boats back are caught from Kerin Forks.
  • Overnight: There are Department of Conservation Huts all over Mt Aspiring National Park for you to stay in – Siberia Hut is a 6-8 hour walk (22km) from Makarora, Kerin Forks Hut is between the two
  • Camping: varies depending on area and weather – contact Arawa/ Haast or Tititea/ Mt Aspiring visitor centres or Department of Conservation for more information.
  • Crucible Basin: Crucible Lake can be accessed by a 7km hike from Siberia Hut, but is in avalanche terrain so camping is not allowed and best for experience hikers only, not to be attempted in winter
  • Gillespie Pass Circuit: 3-4 day circuit from Makarora incorporating the Young River, Gillespie Pass, Crucible Lake, Siberia Valley and Wilkin River. Only for experienced parties, not to be attempted in winter. There are three huts along the way and some camping available– book in advance via Department of Conservation
Helen Shelvey