“We’re walking to the dog! Where dog? Dog in water!” Dan, then 20-months-old, was stoked to be on a sort of safari to a see the mysterious dog in the lake. Except that it was actually a dock, not a dog. Two hours later when we arrived at the hut, he would find this news to be both disappointing and reassuring because a dog living in a lake, while intriguing ,was somewhat concerning to him.

The Lake Daniells track is an undulating, family-friendly path, surrounded by a mossy, red beech forest running alongside the Alfred River in Lewis Pass Scenic Reserve. Marble Hill Campsite is the gateway to the Lake Daniells track. The destination, 8.4 km down the track, is the Manson Nicholls Memorial Hut and the picturesque jetty on the lake, or the aforementioned “dog.”

Our tramp to Lake Daniells was Dan’s second overnight tramp. After narrowly averting a giggling disaster in the tent at Mount Somers a month earlier, we thought our worry over disrupting the other trampers in the hut was well founded. This meant we’d need to bring tent gear in addition to standard tramping supplies. I carried the baby and some snacks, while Jack, my handsome mule of a husband carried everything else, including: a tent, two camping mats, two adult sleeping bags and a baby sleeping bag, pots, dishes, utensils, stove, fuel, spare clothes, cold weather clothes, rain gear, nappies (clean and dirty), regular rubbish, drinking water, and the rest of our food. I regret that we didn’t weigh his pack or the backpack with the baby onboard before setting off on our journey.

On the way out, Jack and I complained of our heavy pack loads and sore, achy backs. I did because our almost 2-year-old wasn’t so little, 30 wriggling pounds in fact, and Jack because overstuffing a pack makes it ill-fitting and uncomfortable. Reassuringly, Dan slept well, squished in the tent with us, and seemed to be quite captivated by the trampers in the hut. We decided that the next time we went tramping, we’d aim to sleep in the hut to help lighten our load. With Dan’s ceaseless growing, that’d only be a short term solution so, though we’d just begun our overnight family tramping adventures, we agreed that we’d shortly need to pause until Dan was big enough to walk into the hut on his own little legs so we could better distribute the gear. We took heart when we met a 4- and 6-year-old on the way to the hut with their parents. If they could do it, Dan could, too, and it wouldn’t be long to wait!

It turned out to be almost 5 years later, but return we did. This time with an extra kid and one less adult (as Jack was working). Like the children we had met 5 years earlier, Dan was 6- and Sadie was 4-years-old.

In my excitement to undertake my first solo tramp with the kids, I confess I made some mistakes. The first was that I didn’t make my intentions clear. My phone battery was low due to the weak signal when driving through Lewis Pass and I didn’t have any reception when we reached Marble Hill campsite. I switched off my phone to save the remaining power for when we drove out after the tramp. Given the good weather and our previous conversations, Jack knew that it was likely we’d be walking into the hut, but he didn’t know for sure.

The second mistake was that I overpacked and there was no one to complain to about it. It was cherry season in the top of the South Island and who picked 2kg of cherries? We did! It was also the week before Christmas so who wore toasty warm Santa hats while tramping in the hot sun? We did! Who forgot to bring stuff sacks for our sleeping bags? We did!

At 62L, my pack is a generous size for one person’s gear, even for multiple days in colder conditions. However, three unstuffed sleeping bags took up the majority of the main pack compartment and additional space was pretty near nonexistent. I managed to cajole our cooking equipment and spare clothing around the blobs of sleeping bag parts and balanced the food somewhat precariously between the top of the main pack and the clipped on pouch on top. I strapped the bag of cherries to one of the outer loops on my pack where it dangled and swung with each of my steps. Most uncomfortably, my whole pack wobbled around on my back refusing to stay snug along my hips and shoulders.

The third potential mistake was venturing to a un-bookable hut without a back-up tent and with the knowledge that we would not have the time or the strength to walk back out again should we arrive to find the hut was already full.

Fear of the full hut is strong in families of young children. It adds tension and seriousness to what could otherwise be a leisurely exploration of the track. Will there be a bed for us when we arrive? Hurry up, we want to be sure to get a bunk! Did those last people to pass us take our beds? Will we be reduced to begging or crying or sleeping on the floor with the rats?

The last mistake was that I had no way to keep the time or gauge the distance. I didn’t have a watch, a phone, or a GPS, and I failed sun dial reading back in high school. It’s important to have a sense of the time to ensure you’re making good progress down the track, and pacing yourself well for food, drink, and rest breaks.

Sadie and Dan put on their little packs containing water, rain jackets, and snacks and we started the tramp as we always do, by posing for group shots in front of the DOC sign. Sporting our Santa hats on our already sweaty heads, we began the hike in good cheer. After an unknown amount of time, my shoulders began to feel sore; the kids started to grumble; I became irritated with the bag of cherries repeatedly knocking into my back; increasingly, I felt the pang of urgency to reach the hut in order to secure a bunk; and no, I did not want to sing Twinkle Twinkle Little Star again.

From our first trip, I vaguely remembered a bridge located halfway down the track and a wave of relief washed over me when, just after our lunch break, we passed over what could only have been the halfway bridge. I was sure it was and I shared the news with the kids. We were re-energised! Knowing we were halfway there, I could certainly manage with the pack a little bit longer. We lightened the cherry load at lunchtime, only one group of three trampers had passed us so there were plenty of bunks left, and I had moved on from Twinkle to Ninety-Nine Bottles of Juice on the Wall.

We walked until there were no more bottles of juice on the wall three times and fatigue was beginning to set in again when we came to another bridge. My heart sunk and I sighed in despair; the bridge was clearly labelled, “Troll Bridge; 4.1km back to Marble Hill Campsite; 4.3km to Manson-Nicholls Hut.” After all this time, we were not quite halfway there?!

Just then we heard chatter and giggling – more children. We were saved! In all, four other children (aged 2-, 4-, 6-, and 8-years-old), their mother, and grandfather joined our party. They told us the time, shared their chocolate, and gave us the final boost we needed to get to the hut. When we arrived, we were greeted by a fascinating group of well-behaved teenagers camping outside the hut. And the greatest relief of all – there was space in the hut! Even when we spread our three sleeping bags over our the hut mattresses, the glorious 24-bed hut was only half full.

We spent the afternoon wading in the lake, catching minnows, and watching the unusual specimens known as adolescents. Dan found a kindred spirit in 8-year-old, Betty, who listened intently as he explained all the uses for his new Swiss Army knife. Then they swapped roles and he learned about the features of her new GoPro. Selfies and whittling ensued. Using her photography skills, Betty took the second customary photo of the trip, the group in front of the hut. After our dinner of canned beans, carrots sticks, and nacho chips, we roasted marshmallows on the campfire and fell asleep after tucking into our sleeping bags in the hut. In our own bunks! The relief was still pinch-yourself celebration worthy.

The next morning we gobbled up our porridge and packed up to get started early. Not before one more photo, though. This one was especially for Jack – a re-enactment of the photo he took when we visited five years earlier. For the first photo, I stood on the end of the jetty and swung Dan up into the air like a kettle bell against the backdrop of the vista of Lake Daniells. Clearly, I had not kept up my strength training as as my kettle bell boy grew over the past 5 years – I could barely manage to get him above my head and he certainly was not tossed gleefully in the air as he remembered.

As we were leaving the hut, a DOC helicopter landed on lake, dropping a couple of rangers to do repairs on one of the compost diversion toilets and see to other track maintenance. A note on the toilets: clean, nearly odourless, and given the thumbs up by the rather particular Dan and Sadie who would prefer the dig and squat method to a long drop full of insects and funk any day.

Spirits were high after the helicopter sighting and the kids ran all the way to the genuine halfway bridge, taking turns hiding and seeking behind the next bend in the track. We took a long lunch, throwing rocks in the Alfred River, and only needed to break out the last resort motivational M&Ms over the last 500 metres near a gorge in the Maruia River known as the Sluice Box.

When we arrived back at the start, my priority was to touch base with Jack so we injected our stinky selves into our car, which was pristine in comparison to us, and drove until we were back in mobile range, fortuitously in an ice cream shop.

A tramp well-done. So much to be grateful for, so much to be celebrated, and so much to learn.