There is one hiking track in New Zealand like no other. A place where, after seven hours of trekking, you are greeted by steaming hot pools and stunning views of snow capped mountains - particularly stunning in winter when the hot pools are more inviting and the sandflies are more scarce.
The Welcome Flat Hut is in the Copeland Valley in the Westland Tai Poutini National Park. The track head is 30 minutes south of Franz Joseph Glacier.
The Copeland Track was once part of an alpine route used by mountaineers to travel from Mt Cook, through the Hooker Valley, over the Copeland Pass and on to the West Coast. This route is not longer accessible because of a slip on the eastern side, but the Copeland Track is still popular as an overnight adventure.
The adventure starts right from the carpark, where you'll be swatting sand flies and then kicking the day off with a river crossing at Rough Creek. Be sure to check track warnings on the Department of Conservation website and never attempt to cross a river if it's unsafe.
The first third of the 18km track forests of the Copland valley is through southern rātā forest. When the track meets the river, there is some boulder hopping for a few kilometres before you're back in the bush, climbing your way towards the Welcome Flat hut and hot springs. Spectacular swing bridges give you a chance to glimpse up at the mountains and down at the raging, boulder-strewn rivers.
Huts are always a welcome sight, but Welcome Flat especially so. You'll spot steam rising from the hot pools before you see the hut itself. There is a large cooking and social area with four 7-9 person sleeping rooms - no bunks.
The old hut warden cottage has also been converted into a private, four-bunk accommodation option, complete with a fire, cooking facilities and the rare luxury of a shower. DOC recommends booking two nights at Welcome Flat so you have a day to explore the area and, of course, soak in the pools.
There is really nothing better than melting your weary muscles into hot water at the end of a long day. The hot springs are fed by a natural spring water that comes out of the ground at a constant 57 degrees. Three pools have been formed, each with a different colour and temperature. The volunteer hut wardens (apparently its a very sought-after post) check the pool temperature and can adjust the rocks to divert flow and therefore temperature. The hottest pool is usually around 42 degrees.
If you're lucky enough to have clear skies, there's nothing more spectacular than staring into the Milky Way from the comfort of the hot pools. A hot tip (excuse the pun) is to bring an inflatable neck pillow to recline on. This allows you to relax back and view the stars while keeping your head above water - to avoid the very nasty amoebic meningitis.
Sunrise and sunset are also magical times to enjoy the hot pools - with the Sierra Range and the 3151m Mt Sefton catching the first and last rays of light.
As adventures go, a hike into Welcome Flat hut is hard to beat. It's a popular spot, so be sure to rally a few mates and book your bed early.