One on One with Stewart Barclay from Adrift Tongariro

The Tongariro Alpine Crossing is heralded as one of New Zealand’s greatest day hikes and ranks among the top ten single-day treks in the world. It is also the playground for Adrift Tongariro owner Stewart Barclay (Stew).

Affectionately known as “The Mountain Man”, Stew has completed the Tongariro Crossing over 1500 times – that is equivalent to 1500 half-marathons above sea level.  An explorer at heart who has a reputation for “going down ‘no exit’ roads to see what’s around the corner”, Stew happily admits he is addicted to the adventuring lifestyle. When he’s not walking in his own backyard, he tramps, climbs, cycles and canoes in New Zealand’s wilderness.

Our editor Kate Webster caught up with Stew recently in New Zealand on the Tongariro track, where he revealed that he wasn’t always like this. In the 1990s he lived a corporate lifestyle, heading to the mountains of the Tongariro region to seek solace and a break from the corporate

“I was part of a group that had arranged to stage the highest dinner party in the world on a peak in the Andes.”

At 20,000 feet, aged 40, he had an epiphany. When he returned to New Zealand, he shed the trappings of corporate success, moved to the Tongariro National Park and began training as a mountain guide. 

Today, his company Adrift employs guides who share his love for the outdoors. Together, they guide walks, canoe trips and cycling treks. While most hikers do the walk in summer, Stew says he loves the shoulder and winter seasons because: there are fewer people on the Mountain and; people get to enjoy the mountains with another dimension – SNOW!

“I can’t imagine ever tiring of walking the Crossing and see it through new eyes every time we guide a group of trekkers.”

We have a chat to Stew about his passion, his backyard and those who come to share it. 

Stew from Adrift Tongariro. Photo Credit: Kate Webster

Why is the Tongariro Crossing so challenging?  

Well, that’s an open-ended question. For a start, its about 20-21 kms. A half-marathon is 21 kms. So for most of us spending the day walking a half marathon is not what we are used to. But surprisingly we all, bar a few, do it in style – taking under 8 hours and that’s with many small recovery breaks and a lunch break. Then there is the vertical 800m to climb up and over.

Why is it so important to hike with professional guides like yourself? 

Having guided on the Crossing for over 20 years, we like to think that we understand what mother nature is throwing at us on any given day and how our clients are managing their challenges. Then we react accordingly to ensure our clients’ safety, enjoyment and knowledge. We know a lot about the geology, volcanology, flora and fauna and customs. We can even can talk a bit about politics and sports to name a few topics , to help take our mind off the uphill bits.

Why should hikers consider a multi-day hike instead of a same day crossing? 

Multi day hikes enable us to get away from civilisation for a while. We get back to basics. We either camp or stay in the DoC huts ( which are a great shelter with running cold water no power and an outside toilet). The wilderness experience really makes one appreciate the modern-day conveniences that we have come to expect, such as mirrors, hot water and soap to name a few. And we learn other skills, like communal living, eating in the outdoors, taking a cold shower under a waterfall and being woken in the middle of the night by the call of the wild.  

What do you think draws people to hiking this alpine crossing?

Its a “Great Walk” in a Unesco World Heritage National Park for a reason – it is blimin’ stunning! Volcanoes, mountain tops, glaciers, emerald green and turquoise blue lakes, mountain streams, waterfalls, native forest – all in 8 hours on this walk. Oops, I forgot to mention panoramic views. Pretty much every type of scenery NZ has to offer in one. The only thing missing is the surf and sand, but who knows with global warming – we may get this yet.

How many times have you done the crossing? 

I think it would be fairer to ask “how many times has the Crossing done me?” Each time mother nature allows me to complete the walk I get home have a cold non-alcoholic refreshment, a couple of cups of coffee, dinner, then plunge hot a bath followed immediately by instantaneous deep sleep.  I am knackered but happy. This endorphin induced euphoria has occurred over a couple of thousand times. 

Are there any standout guests you have taken?

So many. Just yesterday we had a group up Ruapehu and one chap who was around 50 years old , and was wearing a heart rate monitor. The monitor started beeping advising him that his heart rate was 185 BPM. His heart rate normally would top out at 170, max. So this was an issue. We allocated a guide to take him back down.  He got checked out by his doctor who said he did suffer from an unusual quite serious event. He was so happy and thankful for how he and we handled the situation and thank us. He vowed to return to complete his mission. This is why we love what we do, we’re helping anyone who has the inclination to push their boundaries, safely.

What is your favourite memory of doing the crossing?

That’s tough. Those of us in the outdoor adventure market start this type of career for one thing only, passion for New Zealand’s outdoors. Every day there is something that stands out that reinforces our decision to opt-out of business life. Maybe this one memory, it was not on the crossing but the crossing had a hand in it.

It was with a lovely 80+-year-old Japanese man who spoke no English at all so we communicated with hand gestures and facial expressions. He was part of a group of 50+-year-old Japanese tourists. We guided the group over Tongariro on day one and Ruapehu on day two.  Day one, no problem – slow but sure. Day two was slower but ok. We slowly reached the top, then on the return, we explained to the group we could slide down a snow slope – all the group who were  50+ years old slid safely but surely.  I then looked over to the 80+ year old gentleman thinking to my self, hell if he slides he may break in half. He took one look at me and knew what I was thinking. With a big grin and repeating Hai Hai Hai ( yes yes yes ) he ran jumped and did the best slide of all of them. I ended up piggy-backing him the last 15 minutes, it was my pleasure. That was about 20 years ago.

Hero Image Credit: Christopher Chase Photography 

Kate Webster is a world traveller, ocean lover and conservation warrior who is determined to make every moment count for not only herself but the world around her. This has inspired Kate to translate those moments and share them through her storytelling. A dedicated David Attenborough and Jane Goodall fan, Kate has delved into the world of wildlife and conservation travel to bring awareness.